Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Linda Whiteford

Co-Major Professor

Carol Bryant


allied health professions, breastfeeding, ethnography, human lactation, maternal and child health, medicalization


Breastfeeding support for mothers and their babies historically was the informal work of family and community members. In the United States today, breastfeeding support is embedded in the biomedical system, and is provided by a new allied health professional: the International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). This dissertation explores this professionalization of breastfeeding support and the origins of this new profession. It studies how IBCLCs working in the U.S. cultural context perceive and practice the profession and examines the relationship between the profession of lactation consulting and the medicalization of breastfeeding. Oral history interviews with 17 founders of the profession, which was established in 1985, and a content analysis of the professional journal (the Journal of Human Lactation) from 1985 to 2010, allowed me to build the story of how and why breastfeeding support became professionalized and how experiential breastfeeding knowledge entered the domain of expert knowledge. While constrained by the biomedical system in which they created the profession, the founders exhibited a both agency and creativity in their production and reproduction of professional values and practices. Interviews with 30 currently certified IBCLCs and observations of the clinical practice of 3 IBCLCs provided insight into the daily practice of IBCLCs working in different settings--hospitals, WIC clinics, pediatric offices, and private practice. The data collected from these ethnographic methods demonstrated how the medical knowledge base of IBCLCs translates into clinical practice with patients, and allowed me to understand the relationship between the profession of lactation consulting and the medicalization of breastfeeding. While IBCLCs' draw on medicalized knowledge and evidence about breastfeeding and human lactation, their interactions with clients are best described as empathetic and humanistic, and are derived from nursing and mother-to-mother breastfeeding support models rather than from a technocratic, biomedical approach to care. While the appropriation of certain biomedical values and standards helped to legitimize the professionalization efforts of the founders, in practice, lactation consultants apply their medical knowledge and clinical experience in a way that reflects the compassionate, empowering care approach of mother-to-mother breastfeeding support and that thus resists the overt medicalization of breastfeeding.