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How to Travel with Breast Milk

Medically Reviewed by Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
Updated
Your ultimate guide to pumping while traveling.

In many ways, breastfeeding is a convenient way to feed your baby. But things get slightly complicated if you plan to travel for a few days without your baby.

Between travel regulations, milk storage, and packing all your pump parts, the prospect of leaving can quickly become overwhelming.

To help you out, we’ve done the research and created this helpful guide on pumping while traveling.

We’ve included details about how to store milk safely while traveling and how to transport milk by air, vehicle, or courier, so you can be sure your milk won’t be wasted and will arrive safely at your final destination.


What Should I Pack?

No matter which breast pump option you choose, many of the necessities you pack in your breast pump bag will be the same. Here’s a packing checklist to make sure you’re prepared for all situations.

How To Keep Milk Fresh

After you’ve pumped milk, the next challenge is figuring out what to do with it. Breast milk’s shelf life is relatively short (eight days maximum in the refrigerator), so keeping it cool to prevent spoilage is critical. There are a few ways to keep milk fresh while traveling.

  • Cooler with freezer packs: Milk will stay fresh in a typical cooler with ice packs for 24 hours as long as the internal temperature remains between 5 and 39 degrees Fahrenheit (1). This is a good option if you don’t have access to a refrigerator or if you’re traveling by air.
  • Car cooler: You can plug these electric coolers into the power outlet of your car — a good option if you are traveling primarily by car.
  • Ship it home: If you have a large stash of milk, need to send milk home in the middle of your trip, or just don’t want the hassle of traveling home with milk, you may consider shipping it. There is a company that does this specifically, but you can also ship it overnight in a cooler with ice packs or dry ice via any overnight shipping company.

How To Transport Milk

Here are some things to consider when storing and transporting your milk:

  • As a general rule, don’t freeze your milk while traveling. If it defrosts, it cannot be re-frozen and must be consumed or discarded within three days.
  • Call ahead to confirm your hotel has a refrigerator in your room. If they do not, ask if you will have access to one or if one can be placed in your room. Otherwise, consider a plug-in cooler to keep your milk fresh.
  • If you are away from your baby for longer than eight days, you may need to freeze your milk or consider shipping a batch home mid-trip.
  • Shipping milk frozen is the easiest way to ensure it won’t spoil.
  • When shipping breast milk, especially if you’re using dry ice, check with your courier about any regulations. Dry ice is considered a hazardous material, so there may be limits on the volume you can send by air (2).
  • If you use dry ice to keep your milk cool, be aware of off-gassing. Dry ice is the solid form of carbon dioxide and can be dangerous if not kept in a ventilated area.
  • You should always wrap milk bags in newspaper or a towel before placing them in a container with dry ice. Dry ice can damage plastic milk bags in direct contact.

What About Air Travel Regulations?

Air travel is where things get confusing. With all the rules about carry-on limits and liquids on airplanes, it’s no wonder you might be a little panicked about what’s legal and what to 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 through airport security — even if your child is not with you — and is not subject to the volume limitation of typical liquids (3). It is in the category of “medicines,” so the rules do not apply. However, it is still subject to screening.

Notify The TSA

Notify the TSA agent at the airport that you are transporting breast milk before going through security. Remove the milk from your carry-on bags and place it in a bin separate from the rest of your items.

There are no detectable adverse effects of your milk going through the x-ray machine, but if you’d prefer it does not go through the machine, tell the TSA agent, and they can use alternative screening methods. You may also ask to stay with the milk through the screening process to ensure they follow protocol and don’t contaminate the milk.

They may request you transfer a small amount of your milk to a separate container to test for explosives. After testing, 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.

Take Note

If your TSA agent asks to stick a test strip directly into your milk, immediately ask for a supervisor as this is not protocol and can be avoided.

Finally, if you prefer your milk remain unopened, you may request they not open it. However, if you choose this option, you and the rest of your belongings will be subjected to further, more intensive screening, including a pat down (4).

Milk Storage And Air Travel

Ice packs, gel packs, or other necessary cooling accessories are permitted in your carry-on (5). However, it is best to freeze them solid. Slushy or partially frozen accessories are still permitted but can be subject to additional screening.

Life Saver

Even if you are just starting your trip and haven’t pumped any milk, it’s still a good idea to freeze your ice packs to avoid the hassle of additional security screening.

Breast Pumps And Air Travel

There are no prohibited breast pump parts on airplanes. However, there is no specific TSA allowance waiving your breast pump bag as one of your carry-ons, meaning your airline may count it as one.

The good news is that most airlines will classify it as a “medical device” and not count it toward your carry-on limit, although they may count your cooler.

To be sure, check with your airline before travel.

If you are traveling internationally, your destination airport may have different rules. As airport rules tend to change frequently, be sure to investigate these before traveling so you know what to expect.
Headshot of Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC

Editor's Note:

Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC

Pumping Travel Checklist

Here is a step-by-step checklist for traveling by air as a pumping mom.

  1. Check Your Airline’s Regulations: Most airlines don’t count your breast pump as one of your allowable carry-ons but count your cooler as a bag. So, check with your specific airline whether these items will count toward your carry-on limit or if they are exempt.
  2. Freeze Ice Packs Solid: Even if you are just starting your trip and are not yet transporting milk, make sure your ice packs are frozen before taking them through security to reduce the likelihood of additional screening.
  3. Separate Your Milk Cooler: Do not send your milk through security with the rest of your allowable 3-ounce liquids. Set them in a separate screening bin.
  4. Notify a TSA Agent: Let a TSA agent know you’re traveling with breast milk. They may take it immediately for screening or send it through the x-ray machine. If you prefer not to have it x-rayed, let them know, and they will subject it to additional screening. Ask to be present for all screening of your milk.
  5. Watch for Contamination: During the security screening, TSA agents may swab the outside of the milk bottle or open the container to pour a small amount into a separate container for testing. No test strips or other items should be dipped directly into your container of breast milk. If they say they are going to do this, ask for a supervisor.
  6. Opt for Additional Screening: Tell the TSA agent if you don’t want your milk container opened. They can do alternative screenings instead of opening and testing your milk, though it will take longer and be more invasive.

Pumping While Traveling (Step-by-Step)

1. Choose the Right Pump

Evaluate both your travel conditions as well as accommodations at your final destination. Choose a pump that fits your lifestyle and needs.

2. Pick Your Milk Storage Method

Figure out the biggest threat of milk spoilage while on your trip and determine which storage method will best combat it. If you’ll be spending hours driving through the desert heat, a plug-in car cooler may be your best bet.

For air travel, skip the dry ice and use a small cooler and ice packs. If you’re going to be gone for three weeks, consider mailing batches of breast milk home throughout your stay.

3. Do Your Research

Spend time researching the things you need to ensure a smooth process.

  • Call your destination to see whether a refrigerator is available to you.
  • Reserve a hospital-grade pump at a local hospital.
  • Check if your airline will exempt your breast pump from carry-on baggage limits as a “medical device” and whether they count your cooler as a bag.
  • Confirm with an HR representative of the office you’ll be visiting to see if they have a mother’s room.

The more information you have, the better you can prepare — and the more confident you’ll be on your trip.

4. Make a Pumping Plan

When you’re out of your routine, it’s easy for pumping sessions to go by the wayside. Over a few days, irregular pumping can have a serious negative effect on your milk supply. So before you leave, look at your schedule and make a mental plan (or even a written one) of when you will pump your milk.

If needed, schedule alarms on your phone to remind you to pump regularly.

5. Pump – Get Creative if You Need

When it’s time to pump, do it. When you’re away from home, perfect pumping conditions are rare, and you may have to get creative to find a location, or you may have to pump in public.

Here are some tips for pumping in public places:

  • Ask the front desk or an employee if there’s a mother’s room.
  • Choose a quiet corner, and pump under a nursing cover.
  • Pump in a bathroom stall or lounge.

6. Clean Your Pump

After pumping, it’s important to clean your breast pump thoroughly before its next use. If you’re not in a position to wash it well because you’re traveling in a vehicle, sitting on an airplane, or in a place without easy access to soap and a sink, use a breast pump sanitizing wipe. Clean all parts of the pump exposed to milk.

7. Store The Milk

Place your milk in the storage method immediately available. To maintain milk freshness, a refrigerator is ideal. If unavailable, use a cooler with ice packs but transfer to the refrigerator as soon as possible.

Unless you are away for more than eight days or plan to ship your breast milk home, freezing your milk is not ideal while on the road.

8. Pack Milk To Bring Home

When it’s time to come home, pack your milk well, ideally unfrozen, with frozen bags of ice or ice packs. If you are using ice or a pack that’s in danger of leaking, place it in a resealable bag to avoid messes in transit.

Keep your bags or bottles of milk securely in a cooler with the ice packs.

If using dry ice, wrap your milk bags in paper to prevent direct contact with the dry ice as it can damage them and cause leakage. Also, choose a breathable cooler to accommodate off-gassing. If using dry ice and traveling by air, you may use no more than 5.5 pounds (6).

Which Breast Pump For Traveling?

When traveling as a nursing mom, the most important piece of the puzzle is finding the best breast pump. You have three main options.

Hospital-Grade Pump:

These are the pumps you’ll see in the hospital or some employer-sponsored nursing rooms. They are also the pumps the hospital may send you home with after childbirth if you have complications.

They are bulky but powerful. These are the strongest (and least travel-friendly) breast pumps.

Hospital-Grade Pumps Are Best For:

Pros

  • Powerful suction.
  • Heavy-duty design is less likely to be damaged.
  • Can be rented from various sources.

Cons

  • Bulky design is awkward to carry around.
  • Needs to be plugged into a power source.
  • More expensive to purchase than home models and can be costly to rent.

Portable Breast Pump:

These are the most commonly used home breast pumps. They’re the most popular, probably because the Affordable Care Act completely covers the costs of buying or renting a breast pump (7).

Used commonly by working moms, most portable breast pumps come with a carrying bag or backpack for easy transport.

Many of these pumps also have battery options or accessories such as a car power adapter for convenient use on the go.

Portable Breast Pumps Are Best For:

  • Longer trips.
  • Moms who need to pump frequently.
  • Travel by car.

Pros

  • Most are battery operated and don’t require a wall outlet.
  • Effective.
  • Easy to transport.

Cons

  • Extra bulk while traveling.
  • Reliant on a power source (outlet or batteries).
  • Expensive to purchase new.

Manual Breast Pump:

A manual breast pump is the cheapest and smallest option available but the most labor-intensive and least effective at completely emptying the breast. A good option for moms who don’t struggle with milk supply or are away for only a day or two, manual breast pumps don’t require any power source and are handy for women who need to travel light.

Manual Pumps Are Best For:

  • Traveling light as they weigh next to nothing.
  • Short trips.
  • Smaller budgets.

Pros

  • Take up minimal space in luggage.
  • Far cheaper than powered options.
  • No electricity required.

Cons

  • Less suction than electric models.
  • Requires physical exertion.
  • May not fully empty the breast.

Stay Pumped While Traveling

No matter your travel method, being well-versed in the potential pitfalls will help you make a solid plan for successfully pumping while traveling.

The right equipment combined with a strategy to get your milk home safely will ensure a smooth trip without sacrificing either your milk production or the safety of your pumped milk.

Headshot of Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC

Medically Reviewed by

Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC

Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC is a writer, editor, and board-certified lactation consultant for two busy pediatric practices. She is a former La Leche League Leader, Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, and Certified Infant Massage Instructor.