How to Fly With Breast Milk in the United States

Nov 5, 2018

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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 can be a bit anxious about the process. What’s more is that 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 because of this confusion and lack of knowledge on the part of some TSA and airline staff members. Recently, a mother complained after a TSA agent dumped a day’s worth of expressed milk because she didn’t feel comfortable opening the container to be screened and requested an alternate screening method. And in May, another mom was ridiculed by an American Airlines employee for trying to bring her pump on the plane.

Luckily, these stories bring the stressful issue to light and changes are being made. For example, President Trump recently signed the Friendly Airports for Mothers (FAM) Act stating that 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.

airport lactation room
Nursing room at the San Diego Airport (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

But, that still doesn’t clear up all the questions you might have about traveling with breast milk. At least that’s how I, a breastfeeding new mom, felt when I flew with my 8-week-old this summer. So, here is a guide on how to fly with breast milk in the United States so can safely and confidently carry breast milk and pumping equipment onboard your next flight.

TSA Liquid Restrictions Don’t Apply

Since 2006, the 3-1-1 liquid restriction has been in place forcing people to down those bottles of water before heading through security. But, according to the TSA, formula and breast milk “in quantities greater than 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters are allowed in carry-on baggage and do not need to fit within a quart-sized bag.”

The TSA also says that you’re only allowed to bring a “reasonable amount” of pumped milk in your carry-on, which leaves some discretion to the individual officer. So, if you plan to travel with a large quantity, you might want to contact your airline before your trip to ensure you’re in the clear and allow extra time on the day of travel so you aren’t left scrambling to get through security quickly. Or, consider shipping the milk using a company like Milk Stork. FedEx or UPS stores that accept dry ice are also great options.

Milk Stork and other similar breast milk delivery companies work in similar ways. 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 two options: Pump & Tote when you don’t need to ship the milk anywhere but need the cooler (starting at $79 plus shipping and handling) and a Pump & Ship combo when you want to overnight your milk to any location (starting at $139 plus shipping and handling).

And, FedEx also offers a cold shipping package that promises to maintain a constant 2- to 8-degree environment for up to 96 hours. You can preorder FedEx’s cold shipping box.

Breast Pump Rules Vary by Airline

While the TSA has pretty clear rules for traveling with breast milk, the regulations for packing a pump are a bit more confusing. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does consider 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.

(Photo by Annie Wells/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

While a breast pump should not count against your allotted number of included carry-on bags, there are nuances to be aware of. American Airlines, for example, says a pump doesn’t count toward your carry-on allowance, but you should flag a medical device 48 hours before departure. Delta’s policy is even vaguer. Your best bet? Contact your airline to find out the specific rules and try to get it in writing if you can. Print out their rules and have them on you on the day of travel, just in case.

You Don’t Need to Travel With Your Baby

The TSA clearly states 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 United States travel; international policies vary, so do your homework if you are leaving the US.

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

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.” Just be aware that if anything liquid-filled is partially frozen or slushy, 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 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 still must get airline approval before flying with dry ice, so again, allow extra time and bring a printed copy of the FAA, TSA and airline rules.

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 (and any other accessories like ice packs) from the rest of your belongings and notify the TSA officer. This helped me when I traveled because 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, it could help speed up the process to be up-front about the situation and separate the pumping items from the rest of your luggage.

(Photo credit ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo credit ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Security Can Test Some of Your Pumped Milk

While that mom in the UK was justifiably horrified to see 4 gallons of her milk wasted by security, know that’s not the norm. In the United States, TSA officers are only allowed to remove or ask you to separate a “small quantity” of pumped milk for testing.

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 the security. The last thing you’d want to have happen is that the milk spoil by not staying at the appropriate temperature. Follow the CDC’s milk storage guidelines. They 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 — 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 mid-way through the flight.

(Image credit: Natalia Kelman / Getty Images)
(Image credit: Natalia Kelman / Getty Images)

Bring Portable Part 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 the 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. Go the extra step of printing out the guidelines from the TSA and airline websites to have on hand in case a screener or employee questions you.

Allow Time for Additional Screening

Be aware that 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 on to your airport arrival time when traveling with pumped milk. It will help alleviate some anxiety if additional screening is required.

Bottom Line

Given all of this information, you should feel more confident about how to travel with your breast milk. As a breastfeeding mom, have you encountered any trouble or discomfort when traveling with breast milk or your pump?

And, if you’re a new parent, here are some resources to help you confidently travel with your baby…

Featured image by Jamie Grill / Getty Images.

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