In many ways, breastfeeding is a convenient way to feed your baby. But things get a little complicated if you plan to travel for a few days without your baby.
Between travel rules, milk storage, and packing all your pump parts, the prospect of leaving can quickly become overwhelming.
If you’re planning on traveling while pumping, we’ve got everything you need to know to prepare for your trip and get your milk home safely.
What should I bring?
Whichever breast pump option you choose, most of the necessities you put in your breast pump bag are the same. Here’s a checklist to make sure you’re prepared for any situation.
- Draws milk.
- Breast pump accessories (if applicable): Clamps, tubes, membranes, power cord, car adapter.
- Milk collection bottles.
- Milk collection bag.
- Batteries and backup batteries.
- Freezer packs.
- Nursing cover.
- Breast pump disinfectant wipes.
- Hands-free pumping bra.
- Pen to note the day/time of the milk after the draw.
How to Keep Milk Fresh
Once you’ve pumped, the next challenge is figuring out what to do with it. The shelf life of breast milk is relatively short (eight days maximum, in the refrigerator), so it is essential to keep it cool to prevent it from spoiling. There are several ways to keep milk fresh while traveling.
- Cooler with freezer packs: Milk stays cool for 24 hours in a typical cooler with freezer packs, as long as the internal temperature stays between 5 and 39 degrees Fahrenheit (1). This is a good option if you don’t have access to a refrigerator or are traveling by plane.
- Car Cooler: You can plug these electric coolers into your car’s power outlet – a good option if you travel primarily by car.
- Ship them home: If you have a large supply of milk, need to ship it home in the middle of your trip, or don’t want to have to haul it home, you might consider shipping it. Some companies do this specifically, but you can also ship it overnight in a cooler with ice packs or dry ice by UPS, USPS, or FedEx.
How to transport milk
Here are some things to consider when storing milk and transporting it home later:
- As a general rule, do not freeze your milk during travel. If it thaws when you get home, it cannot be refilled and must be consumed (or discarded) within three days.
- Call ahead to confirm that your hotel has a refrigerator in your room. If not, ask if you will have access to it or if it is possible to place one in your room. Alternatively, consider using a plug-in fridge to keep your milk cool.
- If you’ll be away from your baby for more than eight days, you may need to freeze it or consider shipping a batch of milk halfway home.
- It is best to ship milk frozen to prevent spoilage.
- When shipping breast milk, check with the carrier (USPS, UPS, or FedEx) for applicable regulations. Dry ice is considered a hazardous material that impacts the volume you can ship by air (2).
- If you use dry ice to keep your milk cold, be careful of gassing. Dry ice is the solid form of carbon dioxide and can be dangerous if you don’t store it in a ventilated place.
- Milk bags should be wrapped in newspaper or a towel before being placed in a container of dry ice. Dry ice can damage plastic milk bags if in direct contact.
What about air travel regulations?
It is in air travel that things get confusing. With all the rules about carry-on baggage and liquid limits on airplanes, it’s no wonder you’re a little freaked out about what’s legal and what you can expect. Here’s what you need to know.
Expressed Milk and Air Travel
According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), expressed breast milk is allowed by airport security (even if your child is not with you) and is not subject to the volume limitation of usual liquids (3). It falls under the category of “drugs”, so the rules do not apply. However, it is still subject to review.
There are no detectable adverse effects on your milk as it passes through the x-ray machine; but if you’d rather it not go through the device, tell the TSA agent and they can do another check. You can also ask to stay with the milk during the screening process to ensure it is following protocol and not contaminating it.
They may ask you to transfer a small amount of your milk to a separate container to test for explosives. After the test, the sampled milk will need to be discarded as it is no longer sterile, but the rest of your milk in the original containers will be fine.
Finally, if you prefer that your milk be unopened, you can ask that it not be opened. However, if you choose this option, you and the rest of your belongings will be subject to a more thorough check, including a pat-down search (4).
Milk storage and air travel
Ice packs, gel packs or other necessary cooling accessories are permitted in your carry-on baggage (5). However, it is preferable to freeze them in a solid state. Boiled or partially frozen accessories are still permitted but may be subject to additional control.
Breast pumps and air travel
There are no prohibited breast pump parts on planes. However, there is no specific TSA allowance that exempts your breast pump bag from being your carry-on (meaning your airline may count it as such).
The good news is that most airlines will classify it as a “medical device” and don’t count it against your carry-on baggage limit, although they may count your cooler.
To be sure, check with your airline before you travel.
If you are traveling by air internationally, your destination airport may have different rules. Find out before you go so you know what to expect.
Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
Pumping Trip Checklist
Here’s a step-by-step checklist for air travel as a mom.
- Check your airline’s rules: Most airlines don’t count your breast pump as one of your allowable carry-on bags, but do count your cooler as a bag. So check with your airline if these items count towards your hand baggage limit or if they are exempt.
- Freeze solid-state ice packs: Even if you’re just starting your journey and aren’t transporting milk yet, if you plan to get your ice packs through security, make sure they’re frozen so as to reduce the likelihood of an additional check.
- Separate your milk cooler: Do not send your milk to be safe with the rest of your authorized 3 oz liquids. Place them in a separate control tray.
- Notify a TSA agent: Tell a TSA agent that you have breast milk. He can take it right away to have it checked or x-rayed. If you prefer not to have it x-rayed, let him know and he will give it an extra check. Ask to be present for all your milk screenings.
- Watch for contamination: During security screening, TSA agents may dab the outside of the milk bottle or open the container to pour a small amount into another container to test it, but no test strips or anything else should only be dipped directly into your container of breast milk. If they say they will, ask for a supervisor.
- Opting for additional screening: If you don’t want your milk container opened, tell the TSA agent. They can perform other checks instead of opening and testing your milk, but this will take longer and be more invasive.
Pumping while traveling (step by step)
1. Choosing the right pump
Assess your travel conditions and your accommodations at your final destination. Choose a pump that matches your lifestyle and your needs.
2. Choose your milk storage method
Discover the biggest threat of milk spoilage on your trip and choose the most appropriate storage method to combat it. If you have to spend hours driving in the desert heat, a plugged-in car cooler may be your best bet.
For air travel, avoid dry ice and use a small cooler and ice packs. If you have to be away for three weeks, consider sending batches of breast milk home during your stay.
3. Do your research
Spend time researching the items you need to ensure a smooth process.
- Call your destination and check if a fridge is available.
- Reserve a hospital-grade pump at a local hospital.
- Check with your airline to see if breast pumps are exempt from carry-on baggage limits as a “medical device” and if they count your cooler as a bag.
- Confirm with an HR representative at the office you are visiting to see if they have a mother’s room.
The more information you have, the better prepared you can be – and the more confident you’ll be on your journey.
4. Establish a pumping plan
When you’re not in your routine, it’s easy for pumping sessions to get missed. Over a few days, irregular pumping can have a serious negative effect on your milk supply. Before you go, look at your schedule and make a mental (or even written) plan of when you’re going to pump your milk.
If needed, set alarms on your phone to remind you to pump regularly.
5. Pump – Get creative if you need to.
When it’s time to pump, do it. When you’re away from home, perfect pumping conditions are rare and you may need to get creative to find a spot, or even pump in public.
Here are some tips for pumping in public places:
- Ask at the reception or an employee if there is a mother’s room.
- Pick a quiet spot and pump under a nursing cover.
- Pump in a toilet cubicle or living room.
6. Clean your pump
After pumping, it is important to thoroughly clean your breast pump before its next use. If you aren’t able to wash it well because you’re traveling in a car, sitting on a plane, or in a place without easy access to soap and a sink, use a disinfectant wipe to draw milk. Clean all parts of the breast pump exposed to milk.
Also, if you’re in trouble and can’t clean your breast pump BUT you have access to a fridge, just put all the breast pump parts in a Ziploc bag and put them in the fridge. with your milk.
This helps retain the “freshness” of residual milk on parts of your breast pump, such as your pumped milk, preventing bacteria growth and allowing you to reuse them in your next breast pumping session without having to wash you.
7. Storing milk
Place your milk in the immediately available storage method. To keep milk fresh, a refrigerator is ideal. If unavailable, use a cooler with ice packs, but transfer the milk to the refrigerator as soon as possible.
Unless you’re going away for a long time (after eight days) or planning to ship your breast milk home, freezing your milk isn’t ideal while traveling.
8. Pack milk to take home
When it’s time to go home, pack your milk, ideally unfrozen, tightly with ice packs or frozen ice packs. If you are using ice or a pack that is likely to leak, place it in a Ziploc bag to prevent damage in transit.
Keep your milk bags or bottles safe in a cooler with ice packs.
If you use dry ice, wrap your milk bags in paper to avoid direct contact with plastic milk bags, which can damage them and cause leaks. Also choose a breathable cooler to avoid gassing. If you’re using dry ice and traveling by plane, you should use no more than 5 pounds (6).
What breast pump for travel?
When traveling as a breastfeeding mother, the most important piece of the puzzle is finding the best breast pump. You have three main options.
Hospital-grade breast pumps:
These are the breast pumps you’ll see in the hospital, in some employer-sponsored nursing rooms, or the hospital may send you home after delivery. if you have any complications.
They are bulky but powerful. These are the most powerful (and least portable) pumps of the lot.
Hospital-grade pumps are best suited for:
- Mothers struggling to get supplies.
- Pack light: Call a hospital, lactation consultant, or baby supply store in your destination city ahead of time and see if you can hire one for the duration of your stay.
- It must be plugged into the mains.
Portable Breast Pumps:
These are the breast pumps you are probably most familiar with. They are the most popular, probably because the Affordable Care Act fully covers the cost of purchasing them (7).
Commonly used by working mothers, most come with a carry bag or backpack for easy transportation.
Many of these pumps also come with battery options or accessories such as a car adapter for convenient use on the go!
Portable breast pumps are best suited for:
- Longer trips.
- Mothers who have to pump frequently.
- Car trips.
- Does not require a power outlet (can take batteries).
- Easy to carry.
- Extra bulk on the trip.
- Power source dependent (plug or batteries).
- Expensive (if you don’t already have one).
Manual breast pump:
A manual breast pump is the cheapest and smallest option available, but the most laborious and least effective for completely emptying the breast. A good option for mothers who don’t have a problem producing milk or are away for a day or two, manual breast pumps require no power source and are a good choice for women who need to pack light.
Hand pumps are best suited:
- Lightweight when traveling.
- Little trips.
- Small budgets.
- No need for electricity.
- Less suction than electric models.
- Requires physical effort.
- It Takes longer to pump.
Stay Motivated on Your Journey
Regardless of your travel method, knowing the potential pitfalls will help you lay out a solid plan for successful pumping during your trip.
The right equipment, combined with a strategy to get your milk home safely, will ensure you have a smooth journey without sacrificing either your milk production or the safety of the milk pumped.