Tips for pumping & preserving breast milk when traveling

Some of the milk I pumped. Our freezer has been taken over by milk...
Some of the milk I pumped. It’s beginning to take over our freezer… 

Traveling has taken on a new layer of complexity now that I’m a mom.

Over the past month, I’ve taken four trips — two with Madelyn and Troy, and two by myself. I knew it would be difficult being away from Madelyn during the solo trips, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be until I was getting ready to walk out the door. I left the house both times in tears, hoping she wouldn’t forget me. (She didn’t.)

For months leading up to my first work trip, I pumped every day and night so that Madelyn would have enough milk while I was away. I know this isn’t realistic for everyone; some breastfeeding moms may not have the time or ability to pump that much, and some moms may (understandably) not want to. Others may decide to stop breastfeeding altogether before going on a trip to avoid having to pump or maintain their supply.

Keeping up your supply when traveling can be difficult, but I’ve learned a lot over the past month to make it easier. Based on tips from friends and my own experiences, I’ve put together a checklist and related pointers for traveling moms who want to pump and preserve their milk. If you have additional tips, please let me know or share them in the comment section.

WHAT TO PACK WHEN PUMPING ON TRIPS

Electric and hand-held breast pumps. An electric pump is the best option when you have privacy and battery power/access to an electrical outlet. The manual handheld pump (I use this one) comes in handy when you need to pump on the plane or in bathroom stalls at the airport. (Be prepared to do your fair share of bathroom pumping…)

Breast pump parts, plus bottles for milk storage. I typically pack four bottles per trip so that I have enough bottles to pump milk into. Some moms prefer “pumping and dumping” to avoid the hassle of having to travel with milk. I never liked the idea of throwing my milk away, so I try my best to preserve it.

A small cooler with an ice pack. This Medela cooler bag holds four bottles and comes with an icepack that’s specially designed to keep the bottles cold for up to 12 hours. I use the small cooler bag to store milk on travel days, or when I don’t have easy access to a refrigerator or freezer.

A bigger cooler bag with several ice packs. If you’re only going to be away for a day or two, you don’t have to freeze your milk. Both of my solo trips have been three to four days long, so I’ve frozen the milk to make it last longer. A few related tips:

  • If you’re checking luggage, put the cooler bag and ice packs in your checked luggage and carry on the smaller Medela cooler bag. TSA will test your liquid milk, but they don’t open the bottle or put anything in the milk during this process.
  • If you’re only bringing carry-on luggage, make sure the ice packs in the coolers are all frozen. If they’re not, TSA will likely confiscate them. Before you leave on your trip, put a small bottle of milk, or a bag of frozen milk, in the big cooler with the ice packs. This way, there won’t be any question as to why you’re bringing frozen ice packs onto the plane.
  • Before you go on your trip, take a look at this webpage, which outlines TSA guidelines for traveling with breast milk and formula. I always keep it pulled up on my phone so that I can refer to it if need be. I’ve been to eight different airports in the past month and fortunately haven’t run into any issues with TSA agents.
A family pic from our trip to Texas to visit family. Troy’s been a Super Dad when I’ve been away!

Breast milk storage bags. Once you have up to 10 ounces of breast milk, pour it into a milk storage bag and put it in the big cooler, surrounded by the ice packs. If you’re staying at a hotel, call ahead and ask if the mini fridge has a freezer. (Most of them do.) The freezers are typically small compartments that only hold a couple bags of milk. If you need more freezer space at the hotel, ask for it. When I stayed at the Marriott and the Hilton, I told the front desk staff that I had a cooler of breast milk and asked if they could store it in a bigger freezer for me. They accommodated my request, no questions asked. (I’d recommend asking them which freezer they put it in. During one of my trips, a hotel staffer took about 15 minutes to find my cooler because he wasn’t sure where to look.)

Breast pump cleaning wipes and a disposable micro-steam bag. At home, I clean my breast pump parts in a microwave-safe sterilizer. While traveling, I use these quick clean wipes, or soap and water. (I try to avoid soaps that have a lot of scent; sometimes the scent stays in the bottle and alters the taste of the milk.) If you have access to a microwave (some hotel rooms have them), you can use a disposable micro-steam bag. These Medela bags can be used up to 20 times.

Gallon-size plastic bags. I typically pack about half a dozen Ziploc bags to store both clean and dirty breast pump parts. Inevitably, there are times when I don’t have time to clean the parts – usually because I’m running off to my next meeting or I’m trying to catch a flight – so I stick them in one of the Ziploc bags.

A nursing cover. I always keep my nursing cover in my carry-on bag in case I need to use it while on the plane. I try to time my pumping sessions to where I don’t have to pump on the plane. If I don’t have another option, I either pump from my seat or the airplane bathroom. I tend to pump from my seat — with my nursing cover — if there’s a long bathroom line or if I’m engorged and the fasten seatbelt sign is on for an extended period of time.

A hands-free pumping bra/apparatus. I bought this $10 one off Amazon after a friend recommended it. It’s lightweight and compact, so it’s perfect for traveling. I wear it every time I use my electric pump so that I can multitask while pumping.

Photos of your baby & relaxing music. I often look at pictures of my Madelyn when pumping to help boost my supply. Studies show that looking at photos of your child and listening to relaxing music can significantly increase your milk output and even the fat content. Avoiding stress and finding time to relax is also important, though easier said than done when traveling for work. Setting expectations ahead of time – for yourself and others — helps. During one of my recent trips, I had to pump every two-and-a-half to three hours while running a four-day work event and board meeting. I prepped my colleagues ahead of time so that they wouldn’t question why I was stepping out every few hours. Doing so made me feel more relaxed when pumping.

Bottled water and snacks. As a vegetarian, I often have trouble finding adequate protein sources while traveling. If I don’t eat enough protein, or enough food in general, my milk supply drops. To avoid this, I’ve started packing a water bottle and extra snacks — almonds, Kind bars, raisins, etc.

Change of clothes. Let’s face it; pumping isn’t always graceful. There have been plenty of times when I’ve admittedly gotten milk on my outfits while pumping. If you spill milk on yourself and your clothes end up appearing wet or smelling like sour milk, it’s comforting to know you have a backup outfit!

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When you get home from your trip, first give yourself (and your little one) a big hug. You did it!

From there, stick the milk from your small Medela cooler in the refrigerator and put the frozen bags in the freezer. (I’ve traveled for up to 10 hours with frozen milk. As long as the milk still has frozen crystals in it, it’s technically still considered frozen, so you can refreeze it without risk of contamination. (Some articles I’ve read advise against refreezing partially thawed milk, so check with a lactation consultant or your child’s pediatrician if you want a second opinion.)

Pumping while traveling takes courage and commitment. It can be awkward, uncomfortable, and super inconvenient. But keep reminding yourself why you’re doing it – to provide nourishment for your little one. When it comes to feeding babies, food is love.

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