Working as a certified lactation counselor has taken me to some interesting places, including hospitals, clinics, and medical schools all over the country. In January, my commitment to breastfeeding education and awareness took me somewhere entirely new: the Georgia Supreme Court.
I went with my colleagues at Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE), a nonprofit organization that works to reduce breastfeeding disparities in communities of color. Together, we are fighting to overturn a state occupational licensing requirement that will put me and nearly 800 other lactation consultants out of business—while benefiting special interests.
When these political insiders initially proposed licensing lactation consultants, they invited me and other ROSE leaders to participate in the legislative process, but they went behind our backs and changed the bill’s language in their favor after pretending to accept our input. The resulting law, passed in 2018, declares me unqualified to continue in my chosen occupation despite my nearly 30 years of experience.
Over the decades, I have taught breastfeeding principles to thousands of parents, nurses, doctors, medical students, and hospital administrators. My credentials are solid. Yet Georgia regulators now insist that I pay for two years of coursework and complete more than 300 hours of supervised, unpaid clinical work to continue doing what I love.
The intent is to provide better care for young mothers and their infants. But the misguided requirements will have the opposite effect. Competent lactation counselors who cannot afford the new state license will get pushed aside. Some will change careers, while others will move underground—daring state officials to punish them for helping nursing mothers.
Lower-income families, especially in rural communities, will suffer the most. They already struggle with access to health care in a system that not only fails to teach and encourage breastfeeding, but often impedes it. The new Georgia law is just the latest example.
When the district court ruled against us in May 2019, we knew we had to continue the fight for our right to earn a living. Too many people depend on us.
Our clients include doctors, nurses, and medical students who come to us for training—but also new mothers who lack a voice in the political system. Some of these women just need affirmation. Others need one-on-one guidance in a safe environment.
One recent walk-in at the ROSE Baby Café in Atlanta hesitated to give her name. She was older than most first-time moms—probably in her mid-30s—and embarrassed about her inability to master something she expected to come naturally.
We later learned that she was a pediatric emergency room physician with years of medical school training. Yet she started parenthood with the same level of experience as everyone else: None.
Feelings of inadequacy, guilt, frustration, and even physical pain often result when women are left to figure out breastfeeding on their own. That is what attracted me to lactation counseling in the first place. I endured the challenges firsthand as a nursing mother who received little information and support, and I did not want anyone else to go through the journey alone. That is why we partnered with IJ, and why we will not stop fighting. Georgia mothers and their babies—and those who support them—deserve their day in court.
Mary Jackson is a certified lactation counselor and vice president of Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere. She also works as a lactation consultant at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.