The Mile-High Milk Club

One of the toughest parts of working and breastfeeding is the dreaded Business Trip. I’ll cover other aspects, like pumping in clients’ offices or at conferences, and storing milk in hotel rooms, in forthcoming posts. For now, we’re going to focus on what it is like to *magically fly through the air* with breast milk.

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.

Second, you can pack your cooler in your suitcase on the way out, but if you’re going to carry it on (more on this decision below) you have to make room for it on the way home. (A 1-2 day trip will require a reusable lunchbag. Up to a week requires a soft 6-pack cooler; this will hopefully hold lots of beer in the future.) Cram this into the top of the pump bag or your other carry-on. No one said the two carry-ons have to look good.

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:

  1. Set up your battery pack ahead of time – plugged into the pump, with fresh batteries.
  2. 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.
  3. Wear layers for easy access and modesty. A good combo is a camisole with a shirt and cardigan.
  4. Invest in a big shawl.
  5. Make sure you have the angled-down horns from Pumpin Pals – they are amazing and essential.
  6. Have all of your gear within easy reach. Wipes to clean up, Ziploc bags, and extra storage bottles (don’t forget the lids!).

Now you have two options. The first is to pump in the bathroom on the plane. The second is to pump at your seat. I’m not kidding.

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:

Formula, breast milk and juice for infants or toddlers are screened in the same manner as medically necessary liquids.  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 for the container to be opened and may also ask the traveler to transfer to a separate container or dispose of a small quantity of liquid, if feasible.  TSA suggests traveling with an empty container and avoid filling the container to the top. If the formula, breast milk and juice cannot be X-rayed or opened, officers may be required to take additional steps to clear the liquid as well as conduct additional screening, which may include a pat-down of the traveler and screening of the remainder of the traveler’s accessible property.

This language has gotten more specific over time, but it’s still vague – for example, “they may ask … the traveler to … dispose of a small quantity of liquid, if feasible.” 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 ( 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.

Getting home

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!

Work.Pump.Repeat. cover***Want more?*** From flying with a pump to talking about your breasts with the person who signs your paychecks, my new book, Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work, comes out September 8, 2015. You can pre-order now, via:

6 thoughts on “The Mile-High Milk Club

  1. This is such a valuable post! I wish you’d written it before I figured most of it out on my own – would have saved me a lot of anxiety!

    Much to my surprise, I’ve never had any trouble at security with either pump or milk. All the TSA agents I’ve encountered don’t bat an eye. Hopefully I’m not jinxing myself for my trip on Friday 🙂

    The most stressful part for me is usually trying to find a place to pump. It’s incredible to me how most airports (other than my hometown MSP) don’t have a lactation room and instead we have to rely on usually dirty family restrooms.


    1. Thanks, Eva! Wish I could time-machine back to before you needed this 🙂
      Amazed (and happy for you, and slightly hate you in an envious way) that you never had any TSA trouble. I’ve run the gamut with those guys. Hope Friday goes well for you!

      I agree that making food for a baby in a restroom is just gross. But we’ve all been there! I have a friend who hangs the pump bag from the hook inside the stall door, and stands to pump…I guess the less stuff she is touching, the cleaner it feels!


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