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.
If you’re planning to travel while pumping, we’ve got everything you need to know to prepare for your trip, and get your milk home safely.
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.
- Breast pump.
- Breast pump accessories (as applicable): Flanges, Tubing, Membranes, Power cord, Car power adapter.
- Milk collection bottles.
- Milk collection bag.
- Batteries & back-up batteries.
- Breast milk cooler.
- Freezer packs.
- Nursing cover.
- Breast pump sanitizing wipes.
- Hands-free pumping bra.
- Pen to note day/time of milk after pumping.
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 5-39 degrees Fahrenheit (1). This is a good option if you don’t have access to a refrigerator or are 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 just ship it overnight in a cooler with ice packs or dry ice via UPS, USPS, or FedEx.
How To Transport Milk
Here are some things to consider when storing milk and subsequently transporting your milk home:
- As a general rule, don’t freeze your milk while traveling. If it defrosts on the way home, it cannot be re-frozen and will need to 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 it or consider shipping a batch home mid-trip.
- Shipping milk frozen may be best, to ensure it doesn’t spoil.
- When shipping breast milk, check with the carrier (USPS, UPS, or FedEx) about related regulations. Dry ice is considered a hazardous material which impacts the volume you can mail 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 you do not keep it in a ventilated area.
- Milk bags should be wrapped in newspaper or a towel before being placed 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
There are no detectable adverse effects to your milk from 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 do an alternative screening. You may also ask to stay with the milk through the screening process to ensure they follow protocol and not 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.
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 intense 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.
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 that 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 specific airline before travel.
If you are traveling by air internationally, your destination airport may have different rules. Be sure to investigate these before traveling so you know what to expect.
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.
- 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.
- Freeze Ice Packs Solid: Even if you are just starting out on your trip and are not yet transporting milk, if you plan to bring your ice packs through security, make sure they’re frozen to reduce the likelihood of additional screening.
- 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.
- Notify A TSA Agent: Let a TSA agent know you have breast milk. They may take it immediately for screening, or send it through the x-ray. 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.
- 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, but no test strips or other things should be dipped directly into your container of breastmilk. If they say they are going to do this, ask for a supervisor.
- Opt For Additional Screening: If you strongly don’t want your milk container opened, tell the TSA agent. 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 choose the storage method to 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 and see whether a refrigerator is available to you.
- Reserve a hospital-grade pump at a local hospital.
- Check with your airline whether they exempt breast pumps 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 even 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.
Alternatively, if you’re in a pinch and unable to clean your pump BUT have access to a refrigerator, simply place all breast pump parts in a Ziploc bag and in the fridge with your milk.
This keeps the residual milk on your breast pump parts “fresh” like your pumped milk, preventing bacteria from growing and allowing you to re-use them at your next pumping session without washing.
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 an extended time (after eight days) or planning 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, ideally unfrozen, well with frozen bags of ice or ice packs. If you are using ice or a pack in danger of leaking, place it in a Ziploc 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 plastic milk bags, which 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 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.
These are the pumps you’ll see in the hospital, in some employer-sponsored nursing rooms, or 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) pumps of the bunch.
Hospital-Grade Pumps Are Best For:
- Moms who struggle with increasing their milk supply.
- Traveling light: Call ahead to a hospital, lactation consultant, or baby supply store in your destination city and see if you can rent one for the duration of your stay.
- Needs to be plugged into power.
Portable Breast Pump:
These are the breast pumps you are likely most familiar with. They’re the most popular, probably because the Affordable Care Act completely covers the cost of purchasing them (7).
Used commonly by working moms, most 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.
- Car trips.
- May not require a wall outlet (may take batteries).
- Easy to transport.
- Extra bulk while traveling.
- Reliant on power source (plug or batteries).
- Expensive (if you don’t already own one).
Manual Breast Pump:
A manual breast pump is the cheapest and smallest breast pump 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 who are away for a day or two, manual breast pumps don’t require any power source and are a good choice for women who need to travel light.
Manual Pumps Are Best For:
- Traveling light.
- Short trips.
- Small budgets.
- No electricity required.
- Less suction than electric models.
- Requires physical exertion.
- Takes longer to pump.
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 pumped milk.