Adventures in Traveling While Breastfeeding Sans Baby

By: Kelli Cappelier

June 2018

As a professional working in global health, breastfeeding has always been of interest to me from a public health and personal perspective. I knew successfully meeting ones breastfeeding “goals” while balancing a “work/life” balance would be a strategic dance. What I did not anticipate was just how much thought and strategy it takes. I have always told myself that as long as my little guy is interested, I have a goal of breastfeeding for two years. Working in global health, I now travel (mostly long distances) about 30% of my time. My little guy is approaching 16 months and so far so good. Traveling while pumping I could never bring myself to pump and dump, and given we are in the second year of breastfeeding, supply is harder and harder to protect. When I embarked on my first trip when my son was 10mo old, I went to Ghana for a four-day trip that consisted of me being in country for less than 48hrs. As I tried to strategize how best to pump and travel with breastmilk, I had difficulty finding resources applicable for my line of work. I found resources either specific to traveling domestically in the US, or to countries where one can access dry ice. My work travel is 90% in sub-Saharan Africa, the rest in Europe and the US. My trips to Africa usually take ~24hrs, sanitation is strategic, and pumping is not always culturally supported or understood. So through trial and error, successes and failures, and sometimes pleasant surprises, I have managed to come up with a system that seems to be working and results in fewer and fewer surprises. After talking about my experiences with friends and “mom colleagues”, realized I’m not the only one trying to figure this out and have decided to consolidate my tips and tricks that others may be able to use. I figure in DC, there of many of us momma’s juggling these challenges and I hope this can help those of you trying to navigate travel while breastfeeding without feeling like pumping and dumping is the only (or easiest) option. As many of you probably experience, traveling for work and pumping makes me anxious. I feel like my mind never rests and I’m constantly watching the clock for my next pump session. We’re all doing the best we can and surmounting significant barriers while juggling so many things. I share my experiences with hope any part of this can help other momma’s who are trying to juggle work, travel, and breastfeeding.

What to pack

Packing for trips is overwhelming on its own. Packing for pumping requires its own checklist. Here is a summary of my go-to items for every trip.

  • Hand pump – never leave home without it. On my first trip, I was passing through London Heathrow and was pleasantly surprised to find nursing rooms scattered in the airport and lounges. After my flight from DC, I couldn’t wait to just plug in my Medela pump and relax without being crammed in an airplane. I plugged in my pump, turned it on, only to watch the adapter immediately blow up in smoke. I was shattered as I looked at the smoke in the air thinking: 1. Thank goodness I have a hand pump. 2. Wait, I have to pump by hand for the next five days?! I did not realize that a Medela pump required a special adapter for 220v.
    • Pro tip: If you travel with a Medela pump, remember to order a special adapter and I highly recommend a battery pack.
  • Pump – which brings me to the pump. After watching my Medela blow up into smoke (okay, that’s an exaggeration, it was just the power adapter that blew up in smoke), I did more pump research and discovered the Spectra s1 – game changer. Mommas, if you travel a lot, put down your Medela and invest in a Spectra s1. You will not regret and will never look back. The s1 differs from the s2 in that it has a rechargeable battery. Basically, it’s like charging your cell phone. The pump is hospital grade and the battery pumps at the same level as if it is plugged in. The battery also has a long life span, lasting a couple of days (my battery has lasted for a full 48hrs of pumping for 30m at every 4-5hrs). So no need cruising the airport trying to find an outlet, or having limited options for pumping with no outlet. A pump with battery is a must. Finally, the Spectra s1 does not require a special adapter. You can just use your regular travel adapters, which is one less thing you have to worry about.
  • Cooler(s) – My first trip I naively bought a small Igloo cooler to store my milk in. The ice melted in a matter of hours and I had water dripping everywhere. So my next trip, I upped my cooler game. The gold standard cooler is a Yeti, so if you can afford ~$300 for a cooler, go for it. After some amazon research, I found the Homitt cooler, which is in essence a Yeti knock off and works good enough to maintain a cold temperate and ice for a long trip (e.g., door-to-door from Malawi to DC takes me up to 30hrs and I always come home with ice still in my cooler and milk very cold). The Homitt can be found on Amazon for about $100. It’s just the right size for storing a week or more worth of milk. I still bring my small Igloo cooler to use for transporting milk that I pump during my return travel as I check my Homitt in my large suitcase coming back.
  • Pack-it ice bag – These are convenient for plane travel and if you have access to a freezer, for storing your milk during the day. Just make sure the Pack-it is frozen when you travel with it. If thawed, you risk it being taken away.
  • Oxo travel drying rack with brush – these are awesome and so great for cleaning on the go (also helpful to have at work on a day-to-day basis).
  • Ziploc bags – this is not for the “green” mom at heart. You can never pack enough Ziploc bags of multiple sizes. This is where Costco is your friend. I use the ziplocs for storing ice, my pump parts, etc.
  • Milk storage bags – you can never pack enough of these either. I usually pack 100-150 because you never know. I prefer the Target Up&Up or Lansinoh because they can lie flat, making them easier to pack and travel with.
  • Medela clean quick wipes – I never clean my pump parts with tap water in Africa, I always use bottled water, so quick wipes are an easy and efficient way to clean your parts without needing a lot of water or soap. Also convenient for cleaning parts on the plane and on the go.
  • Confidence – Whether on a long or short trip, pumping while traveling takes thought and strategy. You do what you need to do to get the job done. If someone gets an accidental peak at your breast, or gives you a dirty look, it’s their problem and you probably won’t see them again. Pump with confidence, make no apologies, and own it.

What to wear

I try to dress in layers with a drapey cardigan and scarf, which helps to conceal things as needed. In January I got stuck in a snow storm that hit Europe and was delayed 8hrs. As we waited for updates when our plane would arrive/depart, I just had to sit at my gate and pump. No one noticed what I was doing, my cardigan and scarf provided enough coverage to conceal things. For easy access, I wear a sports bra with the two holes cut out, then a camisole with built in bra and a shirt on top to easily and quickly place my flanges.

Protecting supply

I have heard from so many mom friends and mom colleagues how much of a hit their supply takes when they travel. With airplane travel and busy work days, it really is hard to maintain supply. At 16mo, I am pumping about 20oz/day. I follow this strategy, but I’m sure it’s different for everyone and the desired output: I try to pump every four hours around the clock, though I sometimes stretch to five hours if I am short on time, or just tired. At six hours, I start to get anxious. I also wake up at least once in the middle of the night to pump. And because I want to keep my supply up, I usually pump for a total of 20-30m, with a minimum of 10-15m if I am in a hurry.

Security

This is the most frustrating part of traveling as a breastfeeding momma because security rules around breastmilk are mostly nonsensical and were probably written by men (sorry, that is my anger coming out). Many airports make a distinctions between traveling with your baby or sans baby, which can dictate how much fresh breastmilk you can carry on. Traveling with baby, you have more flexibility with the amount of milk you can travel with as carry-on. Traveling sans baby, most airports follow other liquid allowances, unless you are traveling domestically in the US (which allows “reasonable quantities”, whatever that means). However, London-Heathrow allows a mom to travel with up to 2L of fresh breast milk.

  • Always check the security rules on airport websites before leaving, and if possible, print them.
  • In general, EU airports do not make exceptions for carrying quantities of breasmilk above allowed quantities for liquids if you are traveling without your baby. In Paris, they made me dump out my 5oz of pumped milk (grrr).
  • Never travel with frozen breastmilk. Many international airports will make you throw it out if frozen. It usually has to be in liquid form.
  • My airport experiences:
    • Paris CDG and Geneva – you are not allowed more than 100ml/34.oz as carry on breastmilk – this applies to most EU airports.
    • Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – I have traveled through this airport four times with various quantities of milk and ice at various stages of melting and have never been questioned passing through security…
    • London – this is my international transit airport of choice and I am now a proud new One World Alliance member. There is easy access to nursing rooms throughout the airport and in the BA lounges. And they allow up to 2L of fresh milk through security
    • Malawi – after police interrogation and a police escort through security, I managed to carry on a week’s worth of milk. My second time, I checked it.
    • Kenya – high security measures in Kenya, you will need to check it.
    • Ghana – I carried on 5 days worth of milk, no questions asked.

After a variability of experiences and stressful negotiations, I now check my cooler of milk inside my large suitcase. What I have realized is there is so much variability in security allowances and understanding of the rules by security officers, that the best thing to do is check it in your suitcase to avoid the risk of having to throw out your milk.

The cold chain

I work on immunization, so I get that cold chain is critical and what it takes to protect it. In my travels, I have been pleasantly surprised at how accommodating hotels, restaurants, airport lounges, and flight staff have been filling my Ziploc bags with ice. That said, on a long haul flight, ask for ice early as it tends to run out or melt.

During my time away, I have usually had access to a fridge for storing my milk. Otherwise, if you have a pack-it ice bag and freezer, that is useful for milk storage during the day. I have had a hard time finding ice packs in country, so I stopped pursuing that option.

I always make sure my hotel has a fridge in the room. Careful with the temperatures, I have found they either don’t get cold enough, or so cold the milk will freeze.

Packing my cooler for return, I do in layers. I put one layer of ice in a large Ziploc bag on the bottom of the cooler, one layer of milk bags, one layer or ice, milk, and one layer of ice on the top of cooler, then a bag of ice on each side. This tends to keep quite well when checked in and helps minimize the amount of movement. My milk is always very well cold when I get home and there is usually still ice in the cooler.

Pumping in the plane

Pumping on the plane I forever loathe. I do my best to minimize plane pumping as much as possible, so I usually stretch my pumping to 5-6hrs. I usually pump right before boarding, so that I can get through the meal time. And at that point, most other passengers are sucked into a movie (wearing headphones), sleeping, and the lights are off. So it’s pretty easy to pump with going unnoticed. The white noise of the plane tends to drown out most pumping noise. And I use a blanket or scarf to cover up what’s going on. While it takes longer and more effort, pumping with a hand pump is sometimes easier, otherwise, I just use my usual pump.

Pumping in the office and other precarious places

During my travels, I end up at various places, but I’m most often in meetings. I have found it easy enough to find a room to pump in (my most recent trip, I pumped in the “Food Manager’s Office” of a hotel. In all of my travels, I have never had to pump in a bathroom. It’s easy enough to find a corner or somewhere you can go unnoticed that is more comfortable than a bathroom. While I don’t usually start off with explaining I need to express milk, it does sometimes help expedite the process. For example, in Kenya, wherever I went if I said I needed a place to express milk, it was instant access. In Malawi, I just got confused blank stares. In Geneva, I got, “you’re still breastfeeding???” So cultural understanding of pumping varies. Overall, I try to ask women where I can find a place to pump, because never underestimate the power of sisterhood.

Pumping unnoticed in airport lounge.

My stories

I have enjoyed the experience and process of breastfeeding and pumping around the world. While I get more frustrated than pleasantly surprised, overall, there tends to be much more support in the world than judgement. So take the frustrating experiences as an opportunity to learn and educate, and embrace the support and pleasant surprises that come on this journey. Here are some stories from my journey.

Kenya: I often write of the challenges while traveling with expressed milk and the variability across countries and security requirements in airports. Keeping it up is tough and frustrations can run high, but it’s not all an uphill battle (and I think I have my system down now). For example, I never thought I would say that London Heathrow is now my transit airport of choice. They have nursing rooms all over the airport and two in the BA lounge. And while I was in Kenya recently, spending long meeting days in hotel conference rooms, I assumed it would be easy to find a place to pump a couple of times in the day – I mean, it was a hotel? I asked at the front desk if there was a small room that I could use for about 30m. After going back and forth and trying to figure out where a space could be made available, the woman stopped and said, “Hold on. What do you need this space for? Do you need privacy?” I said yes. She responded, “I understand. You need to express milk. Come with me.” And it was like I said the secret password without saying anything at all. She took me to the guest relations manager, “Juliette, can you please get her a room, she needs to express milk. Do you need a key again later today? Do you need a fridge? We will keep it in the fridge. You can access a room when you want, just speak with Juliette.” So while there are many barriers and challenges to breastfeeding, there are also support networks in places one might least expect. While there are many supportive men out there (my boss included), the power of sisterhood cannot be matched — it transcends borders, cultures, and language. I could not have survived my first year of motherhood without my formal and informal networks of sisterhood, and small surprises like this one where one woman is quick to help another woman.

Europe: mommas, avoid Paris, and most other EU airports, if you are looking to carry on your expressed milk or just carrying more than 3oz. Apparently there is no logical reason to carrying breast milk if your baby is not with you (breasts just turn off, right?). While I only had 5oz of milk on me, I was asked to leave security to dump it out in the bathroom, then go back through security. After mildly loosing my cool, I just threw away the bottle since I had a connecting flight to catch. I also learned through this process that Europe is not as nursing friendly in their offices as the US, probably a reflection of maternity leave policies. So I spent the week pumping in bathrooms since there was no other suitable place to pump (plug for the Spectra S1 pump and its rechargeable battery). While I recognize pumping and dumping is probably more logistically easier, I can’t bring myself to do that. And we shouldn’t have to do that if we don’t want to. But I can’t help getting disgruntled sometimes at the unnecessary barriers to breastfeeding, working, and traveling. So far London has my vote for best airport with all of the nursing room space they have!

Malawi: as I was checking in for my flight to leave Lilongwe, Malawi, I mentioned I was traveling with a cooler of breast milk that I intended to carry on. After being interviewed by five police officers, it was determined my Breast milk did not constitute wildlife or a bomb. But before final clearance, I had to prove I actually have a baby that necessitates breastfeeding. Cute photos from my phone weren’t enough. I offered to express milk in front of them, they deemed that unnecessary. Then they asked to see what I use to express milk, so I had to show all my goods with nods of acceptance and disbelief of how far technology has come. But that still wasn’t enough, they needed my baby’s demographic information. They wished I would have had a Dr’s note proving I have to breastfeed for medical reasons. Then I got shamed for leaving an 11mo at home. Once done with this, I received my own personal escort through the airport and security. Once I got to security, the machine was broken and they let me through without a search of my bags. The irony is almost comical. Shout out to the woman who came before me who was denied boarding the plane and had to involve the US embassy to facilitate clearance. Because of her, this tight Malawian security had precedence to let me through.

Ghana: 9hrs into my first international trip without baby and so far a fail. Stuck in London from snow, but I was delighted to find a nursing room right next to my gate to have the time to pump while waiting. Of course my pump instantly blew out after turning it on. This would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Five days of using a hand pump in the middle of all day meetings and within this time, handpumping on planes, getting enough water to stay hydrated, asking for ice where I can to keep milk cool in cooler, getting stopped at security check points to get milk cleared. This stuff is hard work and four more days to go.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this, Kelli! I only wish it had come out 12 months ago! My first overseas trip was to Thailand (from US) with my husband, while the baby stayed behind at 7months old. All of this information would’ve been so helpful! I had very similar experience to you. I pumped in the randomest of places while in transit and in Thailand. My travel-pump broke on the airplane, and I had to buy new on in Bangkok shopping mall (that took several hours of our time), and I thought I was going to explode. ALWAYS bring a hand pump. And agreed, Spectra is the way to go. I brought a cooler to Thailand, filled it with my expressed milk (about 1.5 weeks worth of milk) and frozen re-useable ice packs-wrapping bags of milk and ice packs in newspaper-and the milk was still very cold 35+ hours later when we got home. Also, hotel staff were so help and accommodating of storing our milk in their freezer – the women especially helpful. Thanks again, Kelli. This info needs to be shared widely for others!

    Reply
  2. Wow – THANK YOU so much for illustrating life so clearly. I can see myself going through these motions and planning for my next trip.

    This article is a huge contribution to the sisterhood of nursing mommas. I will print it and share it in my organization‘s lactation room.

    Thank you for your strength, compassion, perseverance and time to share this with your sisterhood.

    Reply

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