TSA, Air Travel, and Your Rights When It Comes to Breast Milk

After Emily Calandrelli went viral for sharing her story about TSA not supporting her right to pump during travel, we reached out to some experts to learn more about your rights when it comes to breast milk.

Mother pumping her breast with automatic breast pump and sunlight evening.

You may have seen the name Emily Calandrelli trending on Twitter or Facebook this past week after the MIT engineer turned Emmy-nominated science TV host of Emily's Wonder Lab had an unpleasant run in with TSA. The famous scientist and new mom became yet another story about how TSA agents unfairly treat breast-pumping parents in our nation's airports. Calandrelli shared her experience in a Facebook post that has gone viral and prompted thousands of other parents to share their terrible experiences with TSA. She also posted about it on TikTok.

"Today was my 1st trip away from my 10wk old son, who I'm currently breastfeeding. I'm going through security at LAX. I brought my pump and 2 ice packs—only 1 of which was cold (I won't need the other until I come home, when I'll have more milk)," Calandrelli's post reads.

She goes on to explain that she didn't have any milk on her during screening because she was planning to do one more pumping session right before her five-hour flight to DC. As any lactating parent can attest, timing when to pump is crucial to successful milk production, milk storage safety, and body comfort.

Calandrelli explains in her post that two male TSA agents refused to allow her to bring the ice packs in because they were not frozen solid. When Calandrelli asked to speak to someone else, preferably a female TSA agent, she was met with more indifference. The two male TSA agents sent their male boss over to her who said, "if you had milk on you, this wouldn't be a problem." Calandrelli writes that he also repeatedly asked her where her child is.

"I asked multiple times to speak to a female agent, and they wouldn't allow it. They escorted me out of line and forced me to check my cold packs, meaning I couldn't pump before my flight for fear it would spoil," she wrote.

Calandrelli then points out that the TSA agents were incorrect; passengers can indeed bring gel ice packs onboard regardless of how frozen they are as long as the ice packs are used for a medically necessary purpose.

What Are the Actual TSA Rules?

"The TSA agents, in this case, were dead wrong when it came to this mom's rights. They should have been humble enough to realize they might not fully understand the complexities of pumping and storing milk," Whitney Casares, M.D., MPH, FAAP, Pediatrician, Founder, and CEO of Modern Mommy Doc and The Modern Mamas Club App, and author of The Working Mom Blueprint tells Parents.

"They didn't have to give her the green light by themselves to move through security, but they should have at least had the wherewithal and respect to consider they might not have all the right information and that this woman's request might be critical to her child's well-being."

When it comes to pumping and breastfeeding while traveling, the TSA has created a series of rules. Notably, breast pumps may be carried on, and breast milk, formula, and even juice for kids are exempted from the 3-1-1 liquid rule. However, there are some considerations that travelers should be aware of.

  • Breast milk, formula, and juice may be required to be screened by X-ray.
  • Liquids may be tested for explosives or concealed prohibited items.
  • You may be asked to dump a small portion of your liquid to allow TSA agents to inspect it.
  • Ice packs, gel packs, frozen teethers, and other similar items are allowed as carry-on items regardless of how frozen they are; however, TSA agents may subject them to the same screenings as liquids.
  • TSA website notes: "The final decision rests with the TSA officer on whether an item is allowed through the checkpoint."

How To Prepare To Travel While Breast Pumping

"Experiences like Ms. Calandrelli's are shockingly common. However, posts like these help educate people about good policies and also provide support for changing bad policies. Unfortunately, undereducated agents or employees often undermine good policies. It is important to 'know before you go,'" Meg York, Esq. Staff Attorney and Assistant Professor of Law South Royalton Legal Clinic Family Law Project at Vermont Law School Practice tells Parents.

York recommends that lactating parents prepare before they travel to avoid upsetting experiences like what Calandrelli describes in her post. A few key things that York says parents should plan include:

  • Gather and print or screenshot information about your rights from the TSA website and your airline's website.
  • Pack your breast pumping equipment and supplies in one bag and alert the TSA agents that you are traveling with those items.
  • Consider packing a hand pump as a carry-on item if TSA agents require your pump to be checked-in.
  • Arrive at the airport early and create an emergency backup plan should anything go wrong.
  • Bring extra zip-lock plastic bags for food court ice to help keep your supply cold.
  • Look for 'Mother's Rooms' if you're traveling through larger airports. These are private lactation spaces for parents to safely express milk.

"Mamava also provides lactation pods at many airports, and the company provides information and advocacy scripts for flying parents," York says.

Having a travel plan and knowing your rights as a lactating parent is key to a smooth flying experience. Still, things can go sideways, as Calandrelli's post highlights, and when they do, it is important to know what recourse you have available.

"One of the first things you can do when this happens is to ask for a supervisor," Juan Dominguez, CEO of The Dominguez Firm, a personal injury law firm that has been serving the Greater Los Angeles Area tells Parents. "It helps if you can readily pull your own copy of the TSA's rules from your phone so you can make your case. This will usually get resolved since supervisors are more likely to know the rules than ordinary personnel. Whatever the result of your appeal to the supervisor, always file a formal complaint on the TSA's website."

Dominguez points out that following through with a formal complaint can help TSA see the gravity of the situation for lactating parents, and it may help to pressure TSA to improve policy and rules to make travel a better experience for parents.

Calandrelli writes in her viral post that the experience was embarrassing and caused her anxiety, but the silver lining is that her public presence has shined a bright light on the issue that many parents have experienced. Thousands of other parents have shared their stories in Calandrelli's comment section, affirming that while it may feel like an isolated and humiliating incident for a parent, it is an unfair and unnecessarily common experience.

"Modern moms don't just face discrimination in the workplace when it comes to their pumping and breastfeeding rights. This viral post proves that, as we travel or go about our daily lives while trying to provide food for our babies, we continue to fight misogyny and misunderstanding at every turn," Dr. Casares says. "The more women like this breastfeeding mom share their stories, the more we shed light on the need for additional advocacy for moms everywhere."

In a comment on her post, Calandrelli wrote, "I love you all so much. TSA has made so many mothers feel AWFUL. I feel like we're all crying alone in the airport bathroom stall, not realizing how many other women are next to us doing the same."

To learn more about your rights as a traveling parent, check out Mamava's interactive page that explains your rights in plain speak.

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