The Mile-High Milk Club – A Guide To Flying With Breastmilk

A while ago I had this great idea to run a post about the logistics of flying with breastmilk and then I realized I can barely manage to gracefully make it through airport security carrying a People magazine, let alone a breast pump and a cooler of breastmilk. So I asked Jessica to step up and take a crack at this one, since she is a pump-on-the-airplaine ninja.

One of the toughest parts of working and breastfeeding is the dreaded Business Trip. And within that category is the even more dreaded prospect of *magically flying through the air* with a robot-baby breast pump and, on your way home, a decent amount of breastmilk. None of this is fun or exciting. It is mostly stressful, messy, cumbersome, and weird. But it is possible to make it less anxiety-inducing, and more tolerable. So, with that sales pitch, are you excited? Here we go!

Mental prep

Pumping and air travel are not natural bedfellows. And you probably have the “what if something goes wrong?” scenario in the back of your mind. We hear the stories regularly enough: A-lister Brooklyn Decker missing her flight home to her baby while she pumped in the airport terminal, entrepreneur Molly Guy being shamed by a flight attendant, a poor she’s-just-like-us woman being sent to pump in the “pet relief area” at Dulles airport. So, yes, things can go wrong. But gazillions of pumping mamas fly every year without major incident. It’s doable, and I’m here to help you make sure you have all of your bases covered.


 Packing for the plane

Getting all your crap in some kind of carry-on-able shape is your first hurdle. 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 security agent. So much of traveling with milk comes down to the individual agent, and if you rock up with two carry-ons and a pump and they reject you, you’re going to be screwed. So: one carry-on and your pump.

First, consolidate: 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 the cooler you’ll use for your milk 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, leak-resistant lunchbag. Up to a week requires a soft-sided 6-pack cooler; this will hopefully hold lots of beer in the future.) Cram this cooler into the top of the pump bag or your other carry-on (no one said the two carry-ons have to look good).

Pumping on the fly

OK, now you’re in the airport. It’s time to drop all expectations that your pumping schedule will work perfectly while you’re en route. But when it’s time(ish) to pump, you can:

Pump at the airport.

If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll be in an airport with a Mamava lactation pod. Go there, and thank your lucky stars. Or maybe your airport has a pumping area – less likely, but worth checking out. If you fall into the “none of the above” category, you have a couple of options: if you’re fancy, pump in the executive lounge; or wrap yourself in a shawl and pump in the damn terminal; or commandeer a “family restroom” to pump in. Now, I don’t believe that any woman should be made to pump in a bathroom, but I’m a realist: some women aren’t going to be comfortable pumping out in the open. Don’t let anyone shame you for making your own situation work. If you do end up in the family restroom, do not feel guilty about taking it over for twenty minutes or so: You’re doing this for your family. Just be aware that they are not complete safe havens (nothing really is). Someone will probably pound on the door at some point.

Pump on the airplane.

This is the more evil of your options, but it’s doable. 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. Have all of your gear within easy reach. Wipes to clean up, Ziploc bags, and extra storage bottles (don’t forget the lids!). And, if you really want to kill it, make sure you have the angled-down horns from Pumpin Pals – they are amazing at increasing milk output and reducing mess.

On the airplane, 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 (and less clean). They are impossibly small even for the act of peeing (who has sex in these things, and how?). If you decide to try it, befriend a flight attendant first. Tell this person that you are a new mother and need to pump breastmilk 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. If you can, get 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, and I believe that big shawls were made for pumping moms on the go.

In either of these situations, if the crew gives you grief for pumping, I’m going to need you to remember that you’re a Warrior Viking Who Does Not Take Crap From Anyone. This is SO hard to do when you’re stressed and tired and vulnerable, not to mention hooked up to a machine. But every single time some ill-trained or ill-informed airline employee bullies us into submission, a kitten dies. You don’t have to get table-flipping mad (in fact: don’t, because I don’t want you to get arrested), but you can stand your ground, politely. There is nothing, anywhere, that says that you can’t pump on an airplane. Say the word “medical” a lot, and remind them that JetBlue and Delta have had to publicly apologize for messing with pumping moms, and Frontier is currently being sued by female pilots for not supporting breastfeeding at work.

Packing your milk for the journey home

Coming home is a bit harder, logistically, because now you have all of that damn milk with you. Hopefully you’ve been able to freeze some or all of it while you’ve been away, as that makes it easier to transport, but even if it’s in liquid form, it’s going to be ok. But prepare thyself for some leaks.

Before you get to the airport, pack your milk into Ziploc bags (for leaks) and into your cooler bag. If you have liquid milk, keep it in the pump bottles to avoid spilling. If you have a lot of frozen milk, they act as ice packs to each other, so don’t stress too much about ice. But if you have room, throw in an ice pack (or two), which are allowed in the U.S. and Canada. Once you’re packed, resist the urge to open the cooler, so you can keep the coldness inside. If you get delayed, find a bartender in the terminal, or a flight attendant on the plane, and ask for ice, which you can put into a Ziploc or a couple of your (empty) breast milk storage bags.

Clearing security with milk in tow

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. A second option is to ship your milk home. The amazing Breastfeeding in Combat Boots has a detailed description of how to do that without dry ice.

If you decide to carry on, which I always do, build an extra 30 minutes into your schedule. In the U.S. and Canada, you are allowed to bring as much breast milk through security as you want, with or without your baby being with you. The UK rule seems insane – if you are traveling without your baby, you are limited to 100mL, and have to check the rest. (This spring, the Breastfeeding Internet gasped in collective horror and empathy at reports of an American woman who was forced to dump nearly 500 ounces of breastmilk at London’s Heathrow Airport.)

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.” Whatever happens next, don’t let that milk out of your sight.

In the U.S., TSA’s website lists breast milk as “liquid medication” and instructs you to “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.” This sounds, to me, like you can refuse to let them open your milk. Remember that. In Canada, nothing specific is said, so you’re a bit more on your own.

At any rate, just in case they try to do something to my milk that I really don’t like, I keep in my back pocket the total lie that my baby is deathly allergic to anything else, so this milk is necessary to keep him alive. Use the word “medical” a lot. Print out the relevant page from the links above and wave their own policies in their face. If necessary, escalate to a supervisor, and/or try to cry.

Getting home

When you get to your destination, the frozen milk will probably  be slushy around the edges. I always just say a prayer and 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.

Go forth

OK…you’re ready to fly. Or at least as ready as you’re gonna be. Print this out if you have to, and know that it gets infinitely easier after you’ve done it the first time. Grab your pumps, mamas, and I’ll see you in the air!



Be sure to check out Jessica Shortall’s highly rated book, Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work. It shares the nitty-gritty basics of surviving the working world as a breastfeeding mom, offering a road map for negotiating the pumping schedule with colleagues, navigating business travel, and problem-solving when forced to pump in less-than-desirable locales.

Related: Milk Stork Takes the Stress out of Pumping and Traveling

Breastfeeding and need to high-tail it out of town? Here are all the best tips and tricks to pumping while traveling and flying with breastmilk!

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The Mile-High Milk Club – A Guide To Flying With Breastmilk

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  • I traveled a decent number of times in the US when I was pumping with my first baby. I was never hassled about melting ice. And, only 50% of the time was my extensive milk supply ever screened on the way home. To make it easier, I consolidated all of the bags of stored milk into two gallon ziplocs so the TSA agent could feel better about just swabbing/screening the two bags vs. the 20+ smaller milk bags.

    Re: Where to pump – I would recommend bringing a post-it or something to write a note on to put outside the handicapped restroom to avoid irate mothers of toddlers (personally i’ve changed many a nappy on airport gate floors). Worst airport EVER to pump in? Easily La Guardia. I HATE THAT PLACE. Your choices are: In a hall (if you need a plug) or in a dirty dirty bathroom stall.

    This post was worth its weight in gold if only because we moved to the UK right before my 2nd was born, and I have my first pumping-business trip coming up this month. 100ml translates to just 3.4 oz, which I can pump in about 5 minutes… so THANK YOU for the heads up to check my milk! If someone ends up with the wrong bag, I can only hope that they donate the milk instead of throwing it away. 🙂

    A ha! I just re-read a post I wrote after traveling for 4 days for my first days back at work after baby #1. Lots of the same tips, though I’ve never had to pump on the plane!

  • There is a really cool service called milk stork that my company reimburses for nursing mamas. They send a cooler package to your hotel and then you send the milk home via fedex overnight so baby has milk again. I’ve used it a couple times. Still end up traveling with some milk, but it was really helpful.

  • Great article! I was really worried about traveling while pumping. It went smoothly, but it’s great to have the extra tips! A few things from my experience…
    – TSA doesn’t care about how many bags you bring through security, only the airline gate agent does. So as long as you can consolidate to 2 bags by the time you get to the gate, you’re golden. I actually did the reverse strategy to that described in the article – I packed all my pumping supplies and a small Medela shoulder bag (to use during my days at my work trip) in my rollerboard, and it worked well. I just made sure I packed coolers at the top of the rollerboard to make it easy to pull out for security.
    – I’m actually a bit surprised this wasn’t mentioned, but it’s really important that cooler packs are FROZEN to go through TSA. The TSA agents specifically asked about this. I made sure to find a place to keep the cooler packs during the day as it was a 30 min. commute to the airport.
    – One other thing – I now stay in hotel chains that offer business stay suites, like Staybridge. Having a real fridge and freezer is much better than the minifridges that freeze things that should be cold but don’t freeze things that should be frozen.

    I haven’t pumped in a plane, but just wondering – do you guys bother with pumping bras with this option?

  • I’ve flown twice in the past two weeks with breast milk and had vastly difference experiences. The first time – no sweat. Just make sure any ice pack is frozen when you go through security. In San Diego, they simply put each bag in a machine that shot light through it as some sort of testing procedure. The TSA agent was lovely and had breastfed her daughter until she was 7 months. I had a totally different experience just this week at DCA. The (male) agent asked me to open the bags of breast milk (I politely declined) after he had swabbed the outside of each bag and gotten an "all clear". I did open one of the two bottles I had with me, he placed a piece of paper over that, which he then tested. I explained that just the week before they had simply scanned the bags in San Diego. He advised, "that doesn’t really work for breast milk" and told me I had to wait for a (second, and rather aggresive) pat down from a female agent. The "additional screening" took 15 minutes beyond me going through the regular scanning procedures. So, while they may have "procedures" in place, it’s wholly inconsistent and each TSA agent has a lot of discretion about how they’re going to treat you. And if they’re screening to make us "safer", you would think they would have a fair, consistent policy that "works" no matter what airport you’re in. Sorry, end TSA rant.

  • Great post! I pumped on the plane once during a 4.5 hour flight. I had pumped in the airport earlier and walked on the plane still wearing my hands-free pump bra with a nursing cover on and just rocked it like a funky shawl. The woman next to me on the plane never noticed until I was putting my milk away (and then she congratulated me and introduced me to her daughter who she breastfed).

    I HIGHLY recommend the Sarah Wells bag that you have in the giveaway (seriously, such a lifesaver). The biggest thing is just to try and be as organized as possible, it makes pumping in weird places a little bit easier when you know exactly where everything is…

  • Good tips! I love the Medela quick clean wipes for no-soap cleaning of parts. Also the "Moms Pump Here" app to find spots around the globe to pump. Minute Suites at major airports let pumping moms use their suites for free for up to 30 minutes. Lastly- I’m requesting ladies to submit their stupidest questions/comments from security: my fav is when I was told the agent that I was traveling with breastmilk, he asked if it was powder or liquid. I’m very much looking forward to when my body can produce a powder form of breast milk.

  • Even better than the angled pumping horns are the Freemie pump parts. You can pop them right in your regular bra. I so wish I’d owned them when I flew solo the first time when Kiddo was 5 months old! Also, if you travel through an airport that doesn’t have dedicated pumping/breastfeeding spaces, write them a letter when you get home. We shouldn’t have to pump in dirty airport bathrooms.

  • When I flew with breast milk, thankfully I wasn’t hassled at all by the TSA. They did screen the milk, which involved opening the cooler and swabbing each (closed) bottle. They didn’t open the bottle of milk though.

    I also found that if you are pumping in an airplane bathroom, some have the baby changing tables which makes it pretty easy. It’s a large table that folds down over the toilet. It means you’re standing for 20 min, but it gives you a large surface to put your stuff on. Bring a clean baby changing cover to lay down to put your stuff on top of.

  • This is PERFECT timing!!! I’m going on my first solo trip tomorrow and have been overly nervous about the pumping/flying with milk/etc. Thanks for easing my fears (at least a little bit!)

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