My name is Mary Unangst and I am an IBCLC in private practice in Tampa, Florida. I own Sweet Songs Breastfeeding, LLC. I see women one-on-one in the comfort of their homes providing breastfeeding support and lactation management. Up until recently I was hosting a weekly support group. The women that attend are a joy to be around and many friendships have already been forged. I enjoy teaching breastfeeding classes, but I’ve only taught a handful and most were while I was employed with WIC (prior to becoming an IBCLC) as a peer counselor.
I was inspired to start this career, I think like many other lactation professionals, after a difficult experience nursing my first. My birth didn’t go as planned and then breastfeeding was incredibly challenging and painful. My world was completely upside down. I credit my (eventual) success in part to my supportive husband, but also to the wonderful IBCLCs who saw me several times a week for the first few weeks. I knew from that point on that I wanted to help other women achieve breastfeeding success and reach their personal goals. If breastfeeding meant so much to me as a woman and a mother, then it surely meant that to others. My passion was born!
My background is actually in linguistics. I served in the Air Force for 10 years before moving onto become a lactation consultant. It’s with that background that I come to this field. I enjoy adhering to the evidence-based research that is necessary to provide good care and I see myself, much like in a military community, as part of a larger female tribe. I get a lot from empowering women on their motherhood journey. I went from peer mentor, to CLC, to ALC and then eventually completed my Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in Maternal Child Health, majoring in human lactation through Union Institute and University and passed the exam to become an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) shortly thereafter.
My Private Practice Challenges
- Marketing – It’s expensive and time-consuming, but a very necessary part to a thriving business. As the months pass, I’ve learned to make marketing and advertising a priority.
- Google continues to be my biggest source for clients so maintaining an updated and captivating website with good SEO has paid off.
- Insurance companies and their interpretation of the Affordable Care Act is another struggle. I offer superbills to mothers for reimbursement, but it unfortunately doesn’t always happen. I’m lucky enough to contract with another lactation company (more detail below) so I can see Aetna clients for multiple visits at no out-of-pocket cost to mom.
The biggest challenge for me as of late is finding a work-life balance. I feel a real sense of urgency to help the moms that contact me. They are often in excruciating pain and on the brink of quitting breastfeeding. I have to remember that my first commitment is to my family (I have two small children and an amazing and supportive husband) and only after my family commitments are met can I then shift my focus to work. It’s taking time, but I’m getting there.
- Know the needs of your target audience – I find that women tend to prefer an in-home lactation visit, especially in the early postpartum weeks. So most of the help we provide to women is one-on-one in the comfort of their own homes.
- Fill a need in your community – In addition to in-home visits, we did hold office space as well. In fact, we were considered the first and only free-standing outpatient breastfeeding clinic! We started out by renting an office space in a prenatal wellness center (offering prenatal yoga, acupuncture, massage and chiropractic care) for a 3 month trial period. I shared the space with my colleague, Trish, so we split the rent – making it quite affordable. We didn’t hold office hours, but instead saw clients by appointment only.
- Network! Network! Network! When we moved to Tampa three years ago, I hit the ground running. I attended breastfeeding seminars, conferences and starting networking with others in the field as much as possible even though I had not established my business yet. Fast forward to today and I think the connections I made are really paying off. I recently (and officially) added my friend and colleague, Trish Hanning to my business. She is an experienced and passionate lactation consultant with nearly a decade in the field. It has been incredible to have her as a mentor and a partner. I actually met her when I interned under her at the hospital her in Tampa. And, you know what? After I started my private practice business, she called me to ask if we could work together!
- Collaborate and establish relationships with other professionals in your field – When Trish and I joined forces, she was already contracting for another lactation consultant (someone I had met through a shadowing program three years ago). After a few months of us working together, our client load was increasing. The next thing I know this other lactation consultant was calling to ask me if I would be interested in contracting for her as well! Trish recommended me to her and she was impressed with the work I had already done in the community. As a midwife and IBCLC she was able to become a preferred provider for a couple insurance companies and now as an independent contractor for her I can see those insurance clients as well and she signs off as the supervising physician.
- Don’t be afraid to DIY – When I first set up my business, I designed and purchased business cards for my clients. I also designed larger post cards to disseminate at expos, pediatric offices and birth centers. I have found that most of my business is generated from women simply searching Google for lactation help in our city. I also designed my website myself using Wix. It was tedious work, but not terribly difficult. I enjoy having the control to tweak it as I see necessary (new services, offers, updated pictures, etc.). I have gotten positive feedback from my clients saying the site is cute and easy to use.
My biggest piece of advice for anyone entering the lactation field would be to get involved in your breastfeeding community; whatever that means for your location. Find mentors, be a mentor, make change and make a difference. This is a group effort; we don’t all know everything! I truly enjoy what I do and I’m grateful every day that I am able to do it!
Are you a lactation specialist (of any kind) in private practice? Consider sharing your experience – tips, lessons learned, challenges, etc. in Galactablog’s “Words from the Wise” series. Contact us here or at firstname.lastname@example.org.