Pumping on The Go: Breastfeeding and Work Travel

I recently left my 5-month-old son for the first time to travel to Chicago from California for three days for my team’s annual offsite. Although I was excited to finally meet our all-remote team in person, leaving my son prompted a variety of questions and anxieties. One of my primary concerns? My son is exclusively breastfed. How would I ensure he had enough breast milk to sustain him while I was away? How would I manage the logistics of pumping and traveling without tanking my milk supply?

Some (slightly frenzied) googling prompted further anxiety, as I read about Emily Calandrelli’s struggles with TSA earlier this summer while attempting to travel with a cooler and ice packs to safely store pumped breast milk. Would I face similar problems?

Thankfully, the trip went smoothly – and I learned a lot along the way, both about how to travel while pumping and about what employers can do to support breastfeeding moms when they travel for work. Here are my tips, for breastfeeding moms and for their employers.

For breastfeeding, traveling moms:

Research the locations of lactation rooms at airports before traveling. As of 2018, the Friendly Airports for Mothers Act requires that all medium and large airports have dedicated lactation areas in each terminal that include a chair, table and electrical outlet. Thanks to these spaces, I was able to comfortably pump prior to my first flight, as well as during my layover. I was unable to find a lactation room close to my gate at O’Hare on the return trip, and wound up awkwardly standing in a bathroom stall for 20 minutes. I was in a rush to catch the flight thanks to traffic en route to the airport, and I found out after the fact that O’Hare is actually one of the best airports for breastfeeding moms. Had I known to research the locations of lactation rooms before traveling, I would have certainly been able to find one.

Store breastmilk and pump parts in a mini travel cooler in your carry-on. Yes, you are allowed to bring ice packs and breast milk along in your carry-on.  However, you may want to be prepared to reference TSA guidelines in case agents are uncooperative.  I didn’t encounter any problems going through security, but in both Sacramento and Chicago, TSA agents pulled my mini-cooler aside, opened it, and searched through it (while I stood to the side cringing, hoping their hands were at least relatively clean).

Under 2016’s Bottles and Breastfeeding Equipment Screening Enhancement (BABES) Act, federal law requires that TSA allow parents to travel with breast milk, baby formula, and related nutrition products.  The BABES Act aimed to ensure that TSA agents would be trained to provide those traveling with infant nutrition products with reasonable, consistent treatment.  However, TSA has in many cases failed to comply with the law, notably in Emily Calandrelli’s case earlier this year.  As a result of this encounter, lawmakers recently introduced the The Bottles and Breastfeeding Equipment Screening (BABES) Enhancement Act to improve TSA’s compliance with its mandate.  The bipartisan legislation looks poised to make it through both the House and the Senate.

For both employers and employees:

Use a breast milk shipping service. To employers: include a breast milk shipping service as a benefit for employees.  In fact, many companies with best-in-class parental policies already include breastmilk shipping services as part of their benefits packages.

My company agreed to pay for MilkStork for my trip.*  This was tremendously helpful, as I wasn’t sure how I could transport several days’ worth of breast milk back from Chicago to California in a carry-on, and the service is somewhat expensive.  It also took some of the pressure off my shoulders to ensure that I could pump enough milk prior to the trip.

*It should be noted that to use this particular service, breast milk needs to be frozen solid for transport. My hotel wouldn’t allow me to use their freezer, so I had to bring the milk into my company’s kitchen to freeze prior to shipping. For traveling moms, consider checking on your freezer access needs prior to travel. For employers, consider ensuring that moms have freezer space when traveling if possible.

Ensure access to an adequate pumping space. Employers should designate a clean, sanitary, private, and easily accessible pumping space.  Crucially, my company has a private lactation room at our headquarters, complete with a mini fridge, comfortable chair, table, and outlets. Having a clean, private space to pump was essential, and it was also important that the room was close to the meeting space where our team was working so that I didn’t miss any more than I needed to as a result of added travel time.

Ensure access to a wearable, rechargeable pump. As it turns out, pumping on a plane is significantly more challenging – and significantly less graceful – than pumping in a lactation room.  Thankfully, I have a wearable, rechargeable pump that doesn’t require an outlet, like conventional breast pumps do.  This is not the case for many moms, as wearable pumps tend to be more expensive and aren’t covered by many insurance plans.

Having a wearable pump made pumping on the go both feasible and discrete: I was able to put the pump on in the plane bathroom, return to my seat while pumping* (under a handy breastfeeding cover), and then go back to the bathroom to take the pump off and transfer the milk to the storage bags.

*Note: employers should also consider including seat change fees as a reimbursable travel expense.  Making multiple bathroom trips without spilling milk is significantly more challenging from a middle or window seat.

All the more reason to ensure access to a wearable pump: airplane seats don’t always have outlets, and pumping in the bathroom is not always an option. On my flight to Chicago, the “fasten seatbelt” light was turned on due to turbulence when I needed to go to the bathroom to remove the pump, and I was scolded by the flight attendant for being out of my seat – not to mention I nearly splashed several fellow passengers while making my way back to the bathroom.  I’m not sure what I would have done if I had needed to be hooked up to an outlet the whole time I was pumping.

Employers looking to support working mothers as they travel should consider providing support in acquiring a travel-friendly pump, whether through a health insurance policy or direct reimbursement.

Create a culture of support for breastfeeding mothers. My colleagues and managers didn’t bat an eye when I needed to pop out of meetings to pump, and were more than happy to catch me up on anything I missed while pumping.  My managers repeatedly emphasized that I should take all the time I needed to attend to breastfeeding needs.  Thanks to this culture of support, I never felt like I needed to jeopardize my milk supply, comfort, or health in order to succeed at work.

A culture of support is important not just within the context of traveling, but for work environments more broadly.  Through both its formal policies and its informal culture, my company actively creates an environment in which it is not only possible but actually easy for me to meet my lactation needs and reach my professional goals.  This is a win-win: I get to enjoy lower stress levels and an improved work-life integration; my company gets a more productive, loyal, and satisfied employee.

Georgia Anderson-Nilsson

Georgia Anderson-Nilsson

Georgia is a Werklabs researcher specializing in policy issues and thought leadership related to working parenthood. A new mom herself, she’s passionate about using data-driven approaches to help power better workplaces.