How to Survive Breast Pumping While Traveling

As a new mom, I struggled with breastfeeding — and spent many hours hooked up to my breast pump to make enough milk. When my baby was 4 months old, my husband and I were going to a wedding overseas, an event we had committed to long ago. I was pretty anxious about pumping while traveling to keep up my milk supply. How could I possibly pump on a plane or in an airport? How would I survive this trip and return home with my precious milk supply maintained? I wasn’t alone in these concerns; so many breast-feeding / breast-pumping parents will need to pump while traveling at some point or another. But whether you’re hitting the road for work or taking a much-deserved vacation without your kid(s), it doesn’t have to be as complicated as it seems.  

We spoke with certified nurse lactation consultants Barbara Lautman and Nancy Estill with the University of Washington Medical Center about best practices for pumping while traveling.  

Preparing for travel by finding the right pump for you

“A really good pump is the trick,” Lautman explains to SheKnows. “One of the big things about a double electric pump that pumps both breasts at the same time is that the hormone release is exponential — usually about double what it would be if you were only pumping from one breast.”   

For my own trip, I prepared by ordering a battery pack for my Medela pump so I wouldn’t be reliant on finding electrical outlets. You might also consider packing a manual hand pump in case your batteries run out.   

Ali from Los Angeles says her Baby Buddha pump is her go-to mobile pump, as she can wear it around her neck like an accessory. She also suggests a nursing cover for added privacy. A milk-catcher, like the Milk-Saver or the Haakaa, is quite easy to use on a plane or another small space to collect leaking milk.  

Lautman and Estill also strongly suggest that lactating parents learn to hand-express. “It’s a lost art,” Lautman explains. “All women benefit from knowing how to use hand expression to get milk out of their breasts in case they are without electricity, their baby can’t nurse or [they’re] on an airplane.” Watch a hand-expressing how-to video here, courtesy of La Leche League International.  

Keeping up milk supply

One big concern for many breastfeeders is how they will keep up their milk supply while away from their baby. “The main trick to keeping up a milk supply any time is draining your breasts effectively and frequently,” says Lautman.

But Estill wants to reassure you that a hectic travel schedule doesn’t have to negatively influence your supply. “Remember that a quick emptying, even if it’s not a complete emptying, is better than no emptying. Keep giving your breasts that hormone signal that, yes, things are different and I don’t have my adorable baby at my breast, but keep making milk!” she tells SheKnows.

Other things that could stimulate your oxytocin reflex, or letdown reflex, include looking at pictures of your baby while pumping or talking over the phone to your partner or caregiver about your baby while pumping.  

Pumping on the go

While on the road or in the air, it can be a struggle to find places to pump that are private and clean. If you are flying, that might mean posting up at an empty airport gate (hi, I’ve done it!) or just using the restroom. Thankfully, more and more airports are now providing nursing rooms or family rooms for breastfeeding parents and kids.  

“I’m a fan of those new Mamava pods in airports,” says Lauren Shockley, mom and author of Four Kitchens. “They’re clean and have classical music playing, with enough space to have all your pumping gear out. The access code to enter the one I used was 8008- like BOOB!”    

If there are no nursing rooms and you find yourself needing to pump in a less-than-sanitary situation, like a public restroom, “bring hand gel and know that breast milk itself has so many live infection-fighting properties and cells in it. If you’re having a germaphobe moment, reassure yourself and know that your milk has a self-cleaning system to keep it safe for your baby.” Estill says. You can also find sanitary wipes, like those made by Medela (starting at $8.99 at Madela) that you can use to clean your pump parts when clean water and soap isn’t available.  

It may be inevitable that you have to pump in your plane or train seat. If possible, try to select a seat in advance that will provide privacy, such as a window seat or at the bulkhead for more room. Wearable cups that can be discreetly slid under your shirt or a nursing poncho are great options. I personally used Freemie cups with my Medela pump. The Freemies catch the milk inside the cups and were a breeze to slide in and out of my sports bra. I tried to time my pumping sessions while the overhead lights were off.  

Saving & transporting your liquid gold

If you are saving your milk, Brianne from Snohomish, Washington, suggests calling the hotel ahead of time. “Oftentimes, the hotel is happy to let you have a designated cooler inside their hotel freezer,” she says. She also has a tip for easier storage for frozen bags. “After pumping, lay your milk-storage bags flat and let the milk freeze into a brick. This makes it easier for packing.”  

Lautman mentioned she knows of moms who use dry ice from the local grocery store to pack their milk and mail it home. Dry ice will keep the milk frozen solid as long as it’s unopened for about three days. Whatever you choose to do, be prepared by packing extra milk-storage bags and bringing the cooler or bag you plan to use to transport your milk home. 

According to the TSA website, formula and breast milk are allowed in reasonable quantities in carry-on bags. It notes that you should remove these items from your carry-on bag to be screened separately from the rest of your belongings. This only applies to liquid milk. If your milk is frozen, then it is not considered a liquid. There are no special regulations for transporting milk in your checked bags, and you do not need to travel with your child to bring breast milk. If traveling internationally, make sure to check guidelines for transporting milk via air travel within the country you are visiting. 

Coming home to your baby

Moms should be aware that sometimes, issues could come up when you’re reunited with your baby, explains Lautman. Frustration can occur if the baby becomes used to the rate of flow from the bottle, which is different from breastfeeding. She says, “It might be helpful to have caregivers use a slow-flow nipple and to slow down feeding by taking out the bottle sometimes and waiting to imitate Mom’s flow.” 

Of course, the biggest tip for moms who are traveling is to have a good support system for you to feel confident when away from your baby. “I think we need to give support and encouragement to women who are holding down the idea of a full life, often including work away from home and parenting,” says Lautman. “It’s important to promote emotional care for moms and [for them] to surround themselves with positive people who can help them maintain both those important parts of their lives.” 

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