Alexandra Schrecengost lived "paycheck to paycheck with her milk" after her twin boys were born. Upon her return to work, the group manager for a large public relations firm in New York pumped about five times a day from the company's wellness room, with every ounce going to the next day's feedings.
The phrase "breast is best" had extra meaning for Schrecengost: her babies were allergic to formula, and she was committed to breastfeeding for a full year.
So when Schrecengost had to go on her first business trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles this past May, she spent hours researching everything from pumping on the plane to shipping her breast milk back home. She even called the hotel manager at the first hotel on her itinerary to confirm she'd be able to follow the guidelines for safely storing and shipping her milk. That manager, a fellow nursing mother, not only secured all the shipping supplies Schrecengost needed, but helped her package her milk and ensure that it shipped on time.
But the second leg of her trip squashed the confidence she gained from that first, overwhelmingly positive experience. When Schrecengost arrived at her next hotel room, it lacked the promised freezer. She had to locate dry ice and a Styrofoam shipping container on her own. And the biggest disappointment was yet to come.
Before checking out, Schrecengost meticulously packed a box of breast milk and left it with a manager and concierge, who confirmed that it would be shipped for arrival the following day. The package never came. When she called to track down her missing milk, she couldn't quite believe a manager's explanation: "It never shipped, because we weren't sure if it could," she recalls the manager telling her.
The hotel promised to repack and ship the milk asap—but when it finally arrived, several days later, it contained ice packs instead of dry ice—and more than 50 ounces of spoiled milk.
Such stories don't surprise Shari Criso, a certified nurse-midwife, registered obstetrical nurse, and International Board Certified lactation consultant in New Jersey. "There's so much misinformation and lack of information around breastfeeding altogether," she says. Her advice: "Do your research ahead of time and never put your milk in the hands of someone else and think they're going to take care of it."
Schrecengost wishes she had received a written confirmation from the manager that the milk would be shipped. Criso recommends going a step further and taking it straight to FedEx.
Amidst the mishaps and misinformation is a rising tide of recognition of the challenges working moms face when returning to work while nursing. "Companies are starting to understand that they need to support their breastfeeding moms," Criso says. In fact, IBM now pays for moms to ship their expressed milk home and helps them coordinate the mailing via a special app.
Until the day when all working mothers have the process streamlined for them, ample research on your end is required. Here's what you need to know:
Understand your airline rights: No one can tell you to stop breastfeeding or pumping on a plane, Criso says. Carrying on breast milk? No problem. The biggest misconception is a purported restriction on how much breast milk you can bring, she says. "Breast milk is not subject to limitations." When going through security, notify the TSA agent that you're traveling with a breast pump and a medically exemptible liquid (even if your milk is frozen). Then decide if you want your breast milk to go through the X-ray machine. If you decline, the agent will ask you to undergo additional screening procedures that may include a pat down, but can't force you to open your milk, Criso says.
Pack ample supplies: For the plane, bring your go-to, double electric breast pump, spare parts, your AC adapter and fresh batteries, a cooler with ice packs (remember to freeze them before you leave), hands-free pumping bra, and milk storage bags. If you're traveling overseas, bring a power converter and adapter plug, but call the manufacturer to make sure the pump will function properly. "Different altitudes can affect the functionality," Criso says. Plus, if the wattage is too high it can burn out the pump.
Avoid airplane water: Instead, use hand sanitizer after washing your hands on the plane, wipe down pump parts with sterile cleansing cloths, and then store those parts in your cooler with the ice packs until you're ready to pump again, Criso advises.
Prep your hotel room: Call ahead and request a room with a freezer and microwave. Ask for a separate freezer, instead of a refrigerator with an internal freezer, which isn't as cold. Bring steam sterilizer bags so you can quickly sterilize parts in the microwave.
Pack your milk properly: The best way to bring your milk on the plane is frozen in bags, in a cooler, Criso says. Your milk will stay safe there for up to 24 hours, and TSA allows ice packs, freezer packs, and up to five pounds of dry ice that is properly vented. Since you may pump on the plane ride home and won't want to put your warm, freshly expressed milk in the same cooler as your frozen milk, bring a separate, small cooler, too, if you can.
Do your shipping homework: If you'll need to ship your milk home before the end of your trip, do as much research and preparation as you can beforehand. Sign up for a FedEx account online, call the hotel and find out where you can get dry ice (click here and here for resources), and call the local FedEx office at your destination to confirm you've labeled your box properly.
In addition to the dry ice, you'll need a thick Styrofoam cooler with a lid that lets the dry ice vent, a cardboard box, packing paper or newspaper, two handmade labels marked "perishable breast milk" (one for the top of the cooler, another on the outside of the box), packing tape, a pair of gloves for handling the dry ice, and a hammer for breaking the dry ice into smaller pieces. Remember to bring the cooler with you when you pick up the dry ice. For detailed instructions on packing the box, check out these instructions from Only the Breast.
As Schrecengost's first experience illustrates, you don't have to turn down opportunities to travel while you're breastfeeding. But preparation is paramount. "It's not just having milk to bring back for your baby," Criso says, "but maintaining your milk supply so you can breastfeed long term."