Nichelle Clark wasn't able to breastfeed — a hard road made even harder by the fact she was studying to be a lactation consultant at the time.
The 35-year-old from Chesapeake, Virginia was battered by infertility treatments to conceive her son David in 2017 and following an emergency C-section, she wanted physical autonomy.
Clark tried breastfeeding, but she had clogged milk ducts and mastitis, a breast infection. She chose to exclusively pump her breast milk.
Her colleagues cringed.
"I was studying to be an international board-certified lactation consultant and the feedback was, 'If you don’t latch this baby, you won’t have breast milk,'" Clark told TODAY Parents. "Well, I love a challenge."
Clark sought information on exclusive pumping, but her breastfeeding support group wasn’t very supportive.
"The moms said, "'You’ll give up,'" she recalled. "It was a vulnerable time — I am a U.S. Navy veteran. I’ve been to war. And now you’re telling me I can’t bottle feed? I cried a lot."
That pressure is pervasive, whether moms breastfeed or not. In June, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated breastfeeding guidelines to recommend that mothers nurse for at least two years (increased from one year) with “nonjudgmental support.”
The breastfeeding bar is even higher for lactation consultants who specialize in helping moms overcome breastfeeding problems.
"When you’ve never latched your baby and you’re helping moms breastfeed, people are confused," explained Clark.
But lactation consultants who couldn't breastfeed are not actually that rare.
According to Diana West, a New Jersey-based lactation consultant and the author of seven breastfeeding books, "many, many" lactation consultants have never nursed a baby.
Many gravitate toward the industry specifically because they couldn't nurse and for that reason, want to support moms. Lactation consulting is also a natural career pivot after working in hospital labor-and-delivery wards.
West never considered breastfeeding because five years before her first pregnancy, she had breast reduction surgery. While her surgeon dismissed the possibility of breastfeeding afterward (the procedure severs the milk ducts), according to the Cleveland Clinic, some patients can, depending on the incision.
West pumped and used donated milk and hydrolyzed formula. "It was stressful," she told TODAY Parents.
West joined La Leche League, a breastfeeding support group. She hoped to meet "intelligent, critically-thinking breastfeeding moms."
She was surprised by the reception. "Instead of criticizing me for using formula, they praised me," she recalled, joking, "The breast was half-full."
One year later, West welcomed her second son. Because she had a successful breastfeeding experience with him, she applied to be a "Leader," a volunteer position that required her to have nursed a baby for six months (today that standard is at least one year).
West felt so empowered that in 1998 — as a formula-feeding mom — she co-founded the support group BFAR (Breastfeeding After Breast and Nipple Surgeries), which exists today.
Some lactation professionals believe their struggle or inability to nurse gave them critical knowledge.
"It's hard to second guess myself," reflected West. "It's been a privilege to help so many people, but I wish I could have helped my son more."
Mother of three Hayley Hoffman agrees.
Her accomplished resume — midwife, nurse practitioner, lactation consultant and an instructor in the department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the University of Maryland — didn't help her breastfeed.
"Breastfeeding was a shock to my system, despite everything I learned in school," she told TODAY Parents.
Her eldest son Jack didn't latch at first. "I had delivered hundreds and hundreds of babies but I still had no clue how intense it was to be engorged with no sleep and a screaming baby," she said. "I thought, 'I've been failing my patients.'"
During maternity leave in 2017, Hoffman was motivated to become certified as a lactation consultant, preparing her to launch a lactation clinic inside the hospital.
Hoffman's second child, Sadie, was born prematurely and developed meningitis, spending one month in the NICU with a feeding tube. With help, Hoffman learned to breastfed her daughter, and created a lecture for NICU nurses on helping breastfeeding moms with special-needs babies.
Then when her now 1-year-old Gabriel was born, he had severe lip and tongue ties and a "horrible" latch, which was treated by a laser. Hoffman created a referral program with her university's pediatric dentistry department to train dentists on identifying and releasing infant tongue ties.
"Had my kids nursed easily, I wouldn't have understood the importance of one-on-one patient care," said Hoffman. "I wouldn't have connected with them on a (deep) level."
She added, "I can now walk in their shoes."