In my baby’s first year, I traveled by air 7 times. Only three of those times was I actually with her.
Even so, she was exclusively fed breast milk for her first six months (a lot of which was expressed breastmilk from exclusively pumping), and even after we introduced solids, never a drop of formula or cow’s milk did cross her lips.
There’s nothing wrong with feeding your baby formula if you’re traveling without your baby. But if you, like me, want to maintain the just breastmilk diet for your little one, it becomes much more difficult if you have to… you know, be away from your baby.
Sometimes, you have to travel for work or sometimes you just want to travel for pleasure. Whatever the reason, I’m going to teach you how to travel via plane with breastmilk.
Yes, that’s right – you don’t have to ship your breastmilk or go through the stress or anxiety of that liquid gold potentially getting lost in the mail.
My first trip away from Poppy was when she was about 7 months old for a team retreat for work. Getting to the retreat wasn’t a huge problem. I just fed my baby before I left, so I didn’t have any breastmilk to deal with at the airport.
It was returning that made me nervous. Over the course of the few days I was gone, I pumped somewhere close to 100 ounces. Because of the strict airport security rules of not being able to go through airport security with liquid over ~ 3 oz, I decided to ship my breastmilk back home to Ryan before I got on the plane.
If the milk has a short distance to go and you go through painstaking precautions to ensure it won’t spill or spoil, is frozen solid and that you’re selecting a carrier who will actually allow you to ship it, this isn’t a terrible option. It just didn’t work out for me — the breastmilk that I packed and shipped via Greyhound got lost somewhere along the way.
Luckily, after it went on a short field trip the milk arrived still frozen solid (luckily it was winter!) 48 hours later. But I never wanted to go through that again. So, instead, I decided to just get on the plane with it.
How to Get Through Airport Security With (A Lot Of) Expressed Breastmilk
Here’s a secret that they don’t tell you in Parenting 101:
The TSA is actually fine with breastmilk being brought through security, even if it’s in containers that hold more than 3.4oz… even in your carry on.
You don’t want to put your breastmilk in your checked bag (that’s asking for disaster), but you don’t have to: the good news is that you are welcome to bring breastmilk through airport security.
There are different rules for traveling with children (probably because nobody wants to make parents lives even harder).
The TSA website says you can bring expressed breastmilk through security “in reasonable quantities,” but I’ve yet to have a TSA agent tell me that I have an unreasonable amount of breastmilk with me — even though sometimes I probably do.
The only downside of carrying expressed breastmilk on a plane is lugging a heavy bag full of frozen fatty liquid through gigantic airports. Hurts the shoulder 😉
Here’s what you need to know about packing and traveling with breastmilk:
- Freeze it all ahead of time in freezer bags with flat bottoms (these are the ones I’ve always used. They’re great and have never once failed me and leaked). Do NOT skimp on the quality of bags you buy. Leaky breastmilk bags in airport security is a nightmare.
- If you don’t have a freezer in your hotel room or suite, ask to use the staff freezer or owner’s freezer. Just explain that you have to freeze breastmilk and you’ll have no problem. Probably because “breastmilk” makes non-parents squeamish. #sorrynotsorry
- Pack your (frozen) breastmilk in an easy-to-carry cooler bag (this is the one I have). Make sure it has comfortable shoulder straps since you’re going to have to lug it through miles of airport.
- Use ice packs to pad the cooler bag. Not those gel packs. I’m talking hard shelled ice packs. I bought mine at the dollar store. I got 6 large ones and 2 smaller, but how many you need will depend on the size of your cooler bag.
- Bundle the breastmilk together, and place it on the inside of the ice packs – as if the ice packs make a wall around the breastmilk. I used big rubber bands to bundle the milk together. This makes the bags insulate each other, and also ensures no bag will fall over and spill.
- Make sure there’s no airspace in the cooler bag. This makes the milk melt more quickly. I fill the extra space with plastic ziplock bags full of loose ice cubes. Make sure to zip those bags tight, and it won’t fail you.
- Cruise through security, but first tell the security agent before you put your bags on the conveyor belt that you have milk.
Now, if the TSA agent is young, male, or new you’ll probably be flagged going through security. When you explain it’s breastmilk, they won’t keep you for too long. Just long enough to make sure you’re not actually packing bags full of moonshine passing it off as baby food.
It seems like there should be more to it, but there’s truly not. Things just get complicated when you have to pump in an airport or on the plane. I’ll get into that next.
Required reading for anyone who will attempt to do this: Work Pump Repeat: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work.
The A:Z Of Pumping in an Airport
Almost inevitably, you’ll have to pump in the airport.
Unless you only have like an hour long direct flight, in which case you’re lucky. But most of you will have to pump in the airport, and luckily, most North American airports make it easy.
Some airports have “lactation suites” (yes, really) called Mamava Pods. They’re pumping and nursing pods. They’re excellent resources (though not always well maintained) and usually have electrical outlets if your pump is dying, hand sanitizer, etc.
If the airport you’re visiting doesn’t have these, take advantage of the family restrooms.
I’ve had to do this probably a dozen times and don’t worry, nobody has ever told me off because I don’t have a baby with me. In fact, those restrooms are so rarely used that nobody’s ever even tried the door when I was in one — even for a 20 minute pumping sesh.
Family restrooms almost always have an outlet which is great news if you have an electric pump that’s on it’s last battery legs, which seems to be Murphy’s law every time you’re traveling.
Protip: go hands free with a pumping bra so you can also do other things like brush your teeth.
If neither of those things can be found in whatever janky airport you happen to find, you might have to settle for pumping in a regular restroom stall. Not ideal, but again, not the end of the world.
That’s pumping in an airport. As you get used to being a traveling, pumping mama, you’ll get used to all of this and become more confident with it.
Sometimes though, you don’t have enough time to pump between connecting flights.
This happened a few times to me and it’s pretty anxiety inducing; you’re worried about your supply, your breasts are becoming engorged, and all you want to do is sit down and pump somewhere. So, that means that you have to pump on the plane.
Look, I know it sucks (and it sounds logistically difficult) but I promise, it’s not that bad. On a scale of 1-10, the suck factor is somewhere around a 6.
You might as well be prepared for this possibility in any case, so here’s what you need to know.
The Delicate Art of Pumping on an Airplane
Okay, so you have to pump on a plane.
Sorry about your luck. First of all, don’t panic. Nobody’s going to hear or see you pump.
With a hands-free pumping bra (this one works wonders) an oversized scarf (which, by the way, who travels without this anyway?), nobody can see that you’re pumping (especially if you have a discreet pump, like the Freestyle). Here’s the scarf I have — I never board a plane without it, pumping or not.
As for the noise factor? Unless you have the world’s loudest pump, nobody can hear it (especially since planes are so damn loud). Not even your seatmate. I have the Medela Freestyle which is really quite quiet.
Before you commit to pumping next to your unsuspecting seatmate, ask the stewards if there are any open rows, and explain to them that you have to pump. Usually there’s something at the back. If the plane is completely full, that’s okay — you can still pump.
Just make sure you’re in the aisle seat. If you happen to be in the window seat, you need to request a switch. Explain that you’ll have to get up a lot and don’t want to bother them. This will make it a thousand times easier to slip out, get the pump on and then return to your seat without clutching your chest like you’re having a heart attack.
Trying to clamour across seats with full bottles of expressed breastmilk under a blanket scarf in a tiny plane is not ideal either. Get the aisle seat.
The trickiest part is getting the pump on. When I’m traveling and I know I’ll be pumping all day, and potentially on the plane, I wear my hands-free pumping bra as a bra. It’s not as comfortable as the sports bra I’d otherwise wear, but I barely notice the difference.
For plane pumping, it’s not the most reliable to store the pumped milk in bags. You definitely don’t want to spill the milk and its’ difficult to find a place (besides the dirty plane bathroom) to pour from the bottles you pumped into, into a bag.
Best to just put lids on the bottles, and then swap out the bottles you pumped into for new bottles. Your pump likely came with bottles and lids, but if not, these worked well for me.
Don’t put your freshly pumped breastmilk in your cooler bag with the frozen breastmilk. Because it’s fresh from the source and quite warm, it could lower the temperature in your cooler bag and thaw the rest of your milk.
Since you’re on your way home to your baby and your fridge, you don’t need to worry too much about keeping newly pumped milk cold. Freshly pumped milk can be kept at room temperature for six hours (more if you live on the wild side like me). However, if you have a long flight and don’t want to risk dumping this liquid gold out, here’s a protip:
When the stewards come around with inflight service, ask for a couple of cups of ice. Then, put the ice in one of your milk storage bags and tie your new milk to the bags of ice (like a sandwich, with your milk in the middle). I’ve used hair elastics to keep them all bundled together.
This is literally everything you need to know about traveling with breastmilk… and pumping on a plane and in airports.
The more you travel, the more second-nature this will all become — until your baby gets to be about a year old and you realize that you don’t need to pump even every day to maintain your supply.