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Tips for nursing and pumping in a foreign land, as well as how to get your milk through TSA

Traveling as a parent is equal parts stressful (so much more to pack!) and sweet (family adventuring!). Throw breast-feeding into the mix, and things can get murky—or maybe it’s milky? From TSA rules to nursing covers, there’s a lot to consider, whether you’ve got baby on board or are pumping milk to bring back home.

Taking a trip with a breast-fed baby seems like it would be easy—all you need is your baby and your boobs, right?—but it can come with its own set of concerns, particularly for international travel. While most people understand that babies need to eat no matter where they might be, parents worry about encountering resistance while breast-feeding in public. Attitudes about breast-feeding vary—in some countries, totally uncovered feeding is the norm, while in others, breast-feeding is considered a private behavior. It’s worth it to do research about the prevailing cultural norms of your destination, says Sedjenane Chang, IBCLC, a lactation consultant based in San Jose, California: “Breast-feed with respect to the local culture as much as you can. But if the culture wants you to go and nurse in the toilet, you have to decide if that’s somewhere you want to travel while you’re lactating.” Here in the United States, 49 of 50 states (What’s up with Idaho?) have laws that protect your right to feed your baby in any private or public location.

If you get any comments about breast-feeding in public, Chang says the key is to stay calm: “Say, ‘I am feeding my child.’ If they get aggressive, say, ‘You’re making me uncomfortable, please leave me alone.’” If the situation escalates, get up and leave or alert an authority. Devorah Klein Lev-Tov, a travel writer with a one-year-old son, suggests always having a large scarf in your bag so you can easily cover up if you feel uncomfortable or want privacy.

Some airports have designated nursing rooms or “pods” (à la Mamava, a private “lactation station” available in 11 U.S. airports) where you can feed or pump. MomsPumpHere is a terrific website and app that lists over 5,000 nursing and pumping rooms in public locations all over the world. No matter where your travels take you, breast-feeding is a surefire way to comfort a baby in an unfamiliar situation and can also help infants with ear pain during takeoff and landing. The CDC has a great guide for nursing travelers, including info about air travel, immunizations, and more, which is also worth checking out. 

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What about traveling without your baby? Pumping can definitely complicate a trip, since it requires both time and supplies. Sadly, most of the world isn’t up to date on making it easy for moms to pump on the go, so chances are at some point you’ll find yourself getting breast milk out of your body in a less than ideal location. Still, it can be worth it if you want to keep breast-feeding.

If you’re new to pumping, make sure you know how to use your pump, practicing at home before you leave. Chang says, “Try to figure out your travel schedule in regards to your baby’s feeding, so you can pump when baby would normally eat. You have to be comfortable or you won’t let down, so think about your own comfort, too.” A hands-free pumping bra makes it easy to pump while you’re doing other things; pumping while you’re sightseeing or bar hopping probably doesn’t make sense (and definitely won’t be fun!), but you can always bring a blanket to pump under during transport or downtime. Decide whether you’ll pump and dump, or pump and bring your milk along.

Chang herself traveled often for work when her oldest son was breast-feeding, so she knows firsthand what it’s like to pump while in transit. If you have a long layover or your flight has been canceled, she suggests enlisting the help of the airline: “Sometimes, they can give you a pass to go into the business lounge, because it is a medical issue—you have to express your milk.”

“If pumping, be sure to stay at a place with a kitchen or kitchenette,” says Naomi Tomky, a Seattle-based food writer and mom to an 11-month-old daughter: “We boiled bottles and pump pieces in tea kettles, but if you aren’t somewhere with potable water, it’s hard to keep things sanitary.” An electrical converter and a backup pump battery are must for any pumping parent, as Tomky explains: “The sockets shorted my plug the first day of a 10-day trip in China, and I had to use battery backup the rest of the time!” Medela makes microwave bags that can steam and sterilize pump parts, too.

Pumping may be more difficult if you’re traveling in a less developed country, especially in regard to keeping milk cold. According to the CDC, breast milk is good for six to eight hours unrefrigerated, five days in the fridge, and three to six months in the freezer. If you’re going to be away from your baby for a longer amount of time, you can look for a local milk bank to donate to. Or you can ship it—according to informal milk sharing group Eats on Feets, breast milk should be shipped using ice, dry ice, or gel cold packs. It can be expensive to ship, so plan ahead. 

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The TSA is notorious for making it difficult to fly with pumped milk, so make sure you’re prepared to deal with possible delays at the security line. The My TSA app has updated guidelines for traveling with breast milk, which is considered a medical liquid. Chang suggests bringing a printout of TSA rules with you, along with a separate cooler and cooling agents just for pumped milk. You can bring more than 3 ounces, but it is subject to both X-ray and other types of screening (if you don’t want your breast milk containers opened, say so). As soon as you get to the security area, tell the agents you are traveling with breast milk, and consider signing up for TSA PreCheck if you travel a lot—it can cut down on time and bureaucracy.

While it may seem old-fashioned, knowing how to express breast milk using your hands will help in a pinch whether you’re with your baby or not. Chang explains: “It’s a skill you should have in case of emergency.” Stanford University has a useful video that shows how to hand-express milk.

Traveling while lactating certainly requires a little flexibility and forethought, but it’s totally doable. There’s no need to limit your wanderlust just because you’re making milk.

>>Next: The Importance of Family Travel—and Its Future