Warning: none of this is fun or exciting. It is mostly stressful, messy, cumbersome, and weird. Excited? Here we go!
Packing for the plane
Some women call their pump "medical equipment" and try to get around the one carry-on and one personal item thing. But it's a good idea to pack as if this were not an option, in case you encounter an ornery TSA agent (so much of traveling with milk comes down to the individual agent).
First, pack your purse into your suitcase and cram a makeup bag down one side of the pump bag, and your wallet, keys, and phone down the other side.
Once your milk is in its cooler, resist the urge to open the bag. Keep the coldness inside. If you get delayed, find a bartender in the terminal and ask for ice in a Ziploc or a couple of your (empty) breast milk storage bags. On the plane, you are not allowed access to the fridge, but you can ask for ice. Store your bag under your seat, not in the overhead compartment, so that it will be less jostled around and you can keep an eye on it. Third, bring your pump’s battery pack and a zillion (ok, 10) large, slider-top Ziploc bags.
Pumping on the fly
Don’t expect your pumping schedule to work perfectly while flying. But when it’s time(ish) to pump, you can:
Pump at the airport. Commandeer a "family restroom". These things beat the pants off a toilet in a regular stall. They often have counters, sinks, and electrical outlets. Do not feel guilty about taking one over. You're doing this for your family. Just be aware that they are not complete safe havens (nothing really is). A friend once had a police officer make her unlock the door when someone complained that she'd been in there too long. (My friend complied, with pump still attached and running, to prove a point. The officer apologized and left.)
Pump on the airplane. This is the more evil of your options. It is not “comfortable”, “fun”, or “something I’ll look back on fondly later”. But what we are shooting for is doable:
- Set up your battery pack ahead of time – plugged into the pump, with fresh batteries.
- Book a window seat, and try to get an empty row. DO NOT book a seat next to your co-worker, unless they’re your BFF.
- Wear layers for easy access and modesty. A good combo is a camisole with a shirt and cardigan.
- Invest in a big shawl.
- Make sure you have the angled-down horns from Pumpin Pals (I am not paid to say that - they are amazing and essential).
- Have all of your gear within easy reach. Wipes to clean up, Ziploc bags, and extra storage bottles (don't forget the lids!).
The airplane bathroom is your more modest option, but way less comfortable. They are impossibly small even for the act of peeing (who has sex in these things, and how?). I worry about flight attendants and passengers thinking I am doing something illegal in there. If you decide to try it, befriend a flight attendant. Target the grandmother type, the man who will help you just to make it stop, or the woman who might have a baby of her own. Tell this person that you are a new mother and need to pump breast milk in the bathroom, and that you didn't want them to think you'd fallen in or something. Trust me, you’re not their first. Then get in there with your battery pack, a bottle of water, and an mp3 player or magazine. Sit on the toilet (lid closed). Balance the pump on your knees. You know the rest. Afterwards, rinse out the pump parts with bottled water (NO sink water) or leave them as-is. (It's FINE! Worry about washing once you’re on the ground.)
As for in-seat pumping, I once found myself on a flight to Bangkok (less glamorous than it sounds) and done with the airplane bathroom thing. The lights were down, and most people were riding the Ambien train. I had an empty row, and the white noise seemed loud enough to mask my pump sounds. So I threw my shawl on, set up discreetly, and pumped while watching 30 Rock on the seatback TV. I swear that no one noticed. Or if they did, I don't want to know.
Clearing security with milk in tow
On your way back home, before you get to the airport, pack your milk into Ziploc bags (for leaks) and into your cooler bag. If you have a lot of frozen milk, they act as ice packs to each other. But if you have room, throw in an ice pack (or two). If you have liquid milk, keep it in the pump bottles to avoid spilling, if possible. Now you need to clear your milk through airport security. One option is to pack your milk into your checked luggage. The belly of the plane is cold, and your milk will be safe from TSA agents. This is most viable when flying direct, but it carries the risk of your bag being delayed or lost. If you decide to carry on, which I always do, build an extra 30 minutes into your schedule. In the U.S., you are allowed to bring as much breast milk through security as you want. It is food for your baby, regardless of whether your baby is there. (The UK rule seems insane – if you are traveling without your baby, you are limited to 100mL, and have to check the rest. Non-American mums, I’d love to hear your experiences!)
When you get to security, say to the agent, "I am a nursing mother, and I am traveling with a breast pump and breast milk." If it's all frozen, say so, because that often makes things easier. Sometimes they want to look at the pump or run that little cloth thingy around the inside of the bag to test for explosives residue. I can sometimes forestall this by watching my bag come up on the screen, seeing the agent look curious, and yelling, "it's a breast pump!"
Whatever happens next, don't let that milk out of your sight.
The rules in the U.S. on what they can and can't do to your milk at security are frustratingly vague. TSA’s website lists breast milk as “liquid medication”. They go on to say:
TSA officers may test liquids for explosives or concealed prohibited items. If officers are unable to use X-ray to clear these items, they may ask to open the container and have you transfer the liquid to a separate empty container or dispose of a small quantity of liquid, if feasible.
Inform the TSA officer if you do not want the formula, breast milk and/or juice to be X-rayed or opened. Additional steps will be taken to clear the liquid and you or the traveling guardian will undergo additional screening procedures, to include a pat-down and screening of other carry-on property.
Formula, breast milk and juice in quantities greater than 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters are allowed in carry-on baggage and do need to not fit within a quart-sized bag. Separate formula, breast milk and juice from other liquids, gels and aerosols limited to 3.4 ounces.
Ice packs, freezer packs, frozen gel packs and other accessories required to cool formula, breast milk and juice are allowed in carry-on. If these accesories are partially frozen or slushy, they are subject to the same screening as described above. You may also bring gel or liquid-filled teethers, canned, jarred and processed baby food in carry-on baggage. These items may be subject to additional screening.
This language has gotten more specific over time, but it's still vague - for example, what are "additional steps"? The officer "may ask" to open the container...but do you have to comply? Who decides what's feasible? I think WE do. Use this vagueness to your advantage.
Some officers will just wave your milk through (I have found this is more likely if you give an “it’s breast milk” heads-up); others will put one unopened bag in a machine. I have had people try to open a bag and wave a strip over it, and I have put my foot down, and won. And I know women who have had agents insist on putting a test strip into the actual milk. I don't know if I have the right to fight about opening my milk, but I've won every time so far. I tell them that if they open it, my doctor says I will have to throw it away, and my baby needs this food as soon as I land. I keep in my back pocket the total lie (which I've never had to use) that my baby is deathly allergic to anything else, so this milk is necessary to keep him alive. I print out and bring the page from the TSA website (http://www.tsa.gov/traveling-formula-breast-milk-and-juice). Invoking a doctor and waving a piece of paper makes them nervous. Use the word “medical” a lot. If necessary, escalate to a supervisor, and/or try to cry.
When you get to your destination, the frozen milk will be slushy around the edges. I throw it back in the freezer; breast milk is so stable that I just don't worry about it. If you have a lower comfort level, pour off any liquid milk into bottles to use within the next few days, and put the fully frozen stuff into the freezer. (Note: Some women ship milk home. This involves finding and purchasing dry ice, then overnighting. I find the idea of doing all of this stressful - not to mention the worry of the milk getting lost, or being out of my line of sight where someone could open it without my knowledge. But if you have an amazing assistant to do this for you, go for it.)
Get up in the air
OK…you’re ready to fly. Print this out if you have to, and know that you can do it. It gets infinitely easier after you’ve done it the first time. Grab your pumps, mamas, and I’ll see you in the air!