How to fly with breast milk in the US

May 29, 2022

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Between judgmental stares and extra luggage, flying with a baby is no easy feat. Add on the stresses of breastfeeding and pumping milk while traveling and it’s no surprise that some new moms may be a bit anxious about the process. The rules and regulations of packing breast milk — and the equipment that comes along with it — can be confusing.

Unfortunately, stories surface on a fairly regular basis about breastfeeding moms being subjected to unnecessary hardships and embarrassment while flying – due both to the confusing rules and a lack of knowledge on the part of some Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials and airline staff members.

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Recently, a breastfeeding mom at LAX was leaving her 10-week-old infant for the first time to go on a trip. She had planned to pump at the airport so her breasts wouldn’t feel uncomfortably engorged, and had brought along ice packs to keep the precious breast milk fresh. She was told by three male TSA agents that she couldn’t bring the packs on the plane because the ice had started to melt. They also informed her she wouldn’t have a problem if she was traveling with her baby or containers of breast milk, and denied her request to speak with a female agent. She ended up with the packs in her checked luggage and didn’t pump as planned.

airport lactation room
A  nursing room at San Diego Airport. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Many moms responded to the woman’s Tweet about the incident, saying they’ve faced similar situations of dealing with ill-informed TSA agents, even after the Friendly Airports for Mothers (FAM) Act was signed into law in 2020. According to the law, all large- and medium-sized airports in the United States have to provide private, lockable, non-bathroom places to pump or nurse in every terminal.

As a nursing mom you may have questions about traveling. I certainly did when traveling with my newborn a couple of years ago (even now, I have to manage ice packs, milk and water for my 3-year-old).

Here is TPG’s guide on how to safely and confidently carry breast milk and pumping equipment onboard your next U.S. flight.

In This Post

TSA liquid restrictions don’t apply

Since 2006, the TSA’s 3-1-1 liquid restriction has been in place, which, among other things, forces people to down any bottles of water they are carrying before heading through security. You’re also supposed to pack any small containers of liquids in a quart-sized plastic bag.

An exception, according to the TSA: is that breast milk “in quantities greater than 3.4 ounces” is allowed in carry-on baggage.

When it comes to how much you can bring, the TSA says “reasonable quantities,” which leaves some discretion to the individual officer. If you plan to travel with a large quantity of breast milk, you might want to contact your airline before your trip to ensure you’re in the clear.

Since the breast milk will likely have to be screened separately, you may want to allow extra time on the day of travel so you aren’t left scrambling to get through security quickly. It’s best to inform the TSA officer at the start of the screening process that you are carrying breast milk, so they can prepare for additional screening. This might include putting it through an x-ray (you’re allowed to deny this), testing it for explosives or even pouring a little out for testing.

Everything mentioned above is also applicable to formula and juice. When traveling with formula-fed babies and toddlers, you also have the right to bring more liquid than the general allowance.

Related: Everything you need to know about TSA’s liquid rules

Consider shipping breast milk

If you’re really nervous about dealing with TSA, consider shipping the milk using a company such as Milk Stork. With Milk Stork and other similar breast milk delivery companies, you first order a custom-designed cooler from the company and it’s shipped to your desired location. You can pump and store breast milk at your convenience and then ship it via the pre-labeled and post-paid box you received with the cooler.

Milk Stork offers several shipping options. The Pump & Ship combo works when you want to overnight your refrigerated breast milk to any location (starting at $199 plus shipping and handling). The Freeze & Ship option is great if you want to send frozen breast milk overnight (from $219 plus shipping and handling). If you are planning to be at one location for a while, you can move or ship large quantities of frozen breast milk (up to 180 ounces) with The Stash (from $229 plus shipping and handling). Milk Stork also sells coolers for those who want to carry refrigerated or frozen milk to the airport.

Another option for shipping is FedEx’s cold shipping package, which promises to maintain a constant 2- to 8-degree Celsius environment for up to 96 hours. You can preorder FedEx’s cold shipping box.

Related: Milk Stork review: Convenient for pumping moms, but for a price

Breast pump rules vary by airline

While the TSA spells out rules for traveling with breast milk, the regulations for packing a pump are a bit more confusing. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers breast pumps to be medical devices, and the TSA says you are allowed to bring a pump in your carry-on. But the specific policies are left up to the airlines.

While a breast pump should not count against your allotted number of included carry-on bags, there are nuances that you need to be aware of. American Airlines, for example, says a pump doesn’t count toward your carry-on allowance, but suggests if you are bringing one you should arrive at the gate at least an hour before departure. Virgin Atlantic states that its goal is to make breastfeeding mothers comfortable and will even put milk on ice. Your best bet? Contact your airline to find out the specific rules and try to get what you are told in writing, if you can. Print out the airline’s rules and have them with you on the day of travel. You may not need them but it’s best to be prepared.

(Photo by Jamie Grill/Getty Images)

You don’t need to travel with your baby to bring breast milk

The TSA clearly says that you do not need to travel with your baby to bring breast milk, a relief for moms who want to continue to pump while on the go. This rule only applies to U.S. travel; international policies vary, so do your homework if you are leaving the U.S.

One mom was forced to dump 4 gallons of breast milk while traveling for work because, at the time, the U.K. stipulated you must fly with a baby to bring the milk along. To avoid this scenario, check the rules of the country you are visiting. And know that, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you do not need to declare pumped milk at U.S. Customs when returning to the United States.

Related: 12 tips on how to travel internationally with a baby

Frozen ice packs are allowed through security

In addition to breast milk, the TSA allows “ice packs, freezer packs, frozen gel packs and other accessories required to cool breast milk.” And, this is “regardless of the presence of breast milk.” Anything liquid-filled, partially frozen, or slushy is also allowed, but additional screening might be required. It is best to use ice packs that are frozen solid.

Dry ice is another option when flying with breast milk, but bringing dry ice in your carry-on or checked luggage can add a layer of complexity. Before going that route, check with your airline for the exact requirements. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) limits travelers to 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms) of dry ice in a carry-on or checked bag, but the package must be vented and marked as dry ice. The FAA stipulates that you must get airline approval before flying with dry ice, so again, allow extra time at the airport and bring along a printed copy of the FAA, TSA and airline rules.

(Photo by Natalia Kelman/Getty Images)

Flag your milk to a TSA Agent

To help the process of going through security with your breast milk run as smoothly as possible, separate it (along with any other breastfeeding accouterments) from the rest of your belongings, and notify the TSA officer about what you’re carrying. This helped me when I traveled. I was screened separately from other passengers whose bags were flagged when going through the X-ray machine, and I didn’t have to wait in the long queue. While that might not always happen, being upfront could help speed up the process.

You can request additional screening

The typical procedure for examining breast milk involves it being X-rayed and/or opened and tested. If you don’t want to follow that protocol, you can request additional screening procedures, which can “include a pat-down and screening of other carry-on property,” according to the TSA.

Follow breast milk storage guidelines

You’ve gone through all the hassle of getting your breast milk through security. The last thing you’d want to have happen is for the milk to get spoiled by not staying at the appropriate temperature. Follow the CDC’s milk storage guidelines which say that “expressed milk should be stored in clean, tightly sealed containers.” You can keep that milk at room temperature for up to six to eight hours, 24 hours in an insulated cooler bag with frozen ice packs and five days in a refrigerator — or longer in a freezer. If you’re planning a long-haul trip, consider asking the flight attendants to give you more ice for your cooler midway through the flight.

Bring portable pump cleaners

Not only do you have to ensure your milk stays fresh, but the components of your pump will also require cleaning. If you plan to express milk on the go, remember that droplets of milk will remain inside the bottles and suction components. Those can spoil, too, if not kept refrigerated or adequately cleaned. To avoid unintentionally having spoiled milk while pumping, bring along portable pump wipes for quick cleans until you have access to a more thorough wash.

Print out the TSA rules

Just because the TSA lists the rules and you know them by heart doesn’t mean that every TSA officer is as familiar as you are with the nitty-gritty. Just like with the airline rules, go the extra step of printing out the guidelines from the TSA to have on hand in case a screener questions you. Or, have the TSA website pulled up on your phone with the information. It clearly states your rights, which include the fact you’re allowed to travel with milk, a pump and ice packs, whether your baby is with you or not.

Allow time for additional screening

The screening process doesn’t always go off without a hitch. Even if the TSA officer follows the standard procedures, it could take a bit longer to make it through security, especially during busy times. It’s good to add 30 minutes to your airport arrival time when traveling with pumped milk. It will help alleviate some anxiety if additional screening is required.

Passengers proceed through the TSA security checkpoint at Denver International Airport
(Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Bottom line

You have rights as a breastfeeding mom that governmental organizations and airlines have acknowledged. The problem is not every person you encounter on your travels is aware of them. So, following these tips should help you feel more confident when traveling and alleviate some unnecessary headaches because having a baby is stressful enough!

Featured photo by Jamie Grill/Getty Images.

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