The Horrors of Breastfeeding and Pumping While Traveling


For mothers across the world, breastfeeding means finding creative places to both nurse and pump in public spaces. (Photo: Thinkstock)

When I read the recent reports about a woman getting harassed for nursing her infant on a United Airlines flight, it brought back all too well the nightmare of breastfeeding and — in my case — pumping while traveling.

After my daughter Lucy was born, I vowed to breastfeed her for a year. But because I was traveling regularly for my job, that meant I was forced to pump in airplane lavatories, in the back of cabs, in conference-center bathrooms, and in hotel rooms across the globe.

Two years later, I still wince when I think about the bottle of milk I spilled on the floor of a tiny bathroom stall at the Hôtel Lutetia in Paris, where I sneaked in for a quick pumping break while buzzing around the city. Eight ounces of hard-earned milk. Liquid gold, gone.

My first business trip was to Washington, D.C., when Lucy was just 4 months old. Right after I came back from maternity leave, my then-boss asked if I would attend a conference. I didn’t really want to go, given that I had such a young baby, but I felt that it was an unspoken test of my dedication to my job.


There are so many things that no one wants to tell you about breast pumping. (Photo: Thinkstock)

I scoured the Internet for advice on how to deal with transporting milk and found surprisingly little information. I was not one of those lucky women who were able to brag about reserves of milk in the freezer. Every precious ounce I produced was consumed almost immediately. So I planned to take every bit home. No pumping and dumping for me.

For a month before the trip, I amped up my production by eating oatmeal every morning, drinking the occasional Guinness, and guzzling Mother’s Milk tea. I was able to leave Lucy with just enough milk to get her through the days that I would be away.

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Since the conference was being held at the Jefferson in Washington, D.C., the hotel knew that I was coming and that it was my first trip without my daughter. When I arrived, they had thoughtfully put framed photos of Lucy next to the bed.

I cried when I saw them.

I cleared off the desk and set up my supplies: insulated cooler bags, ice packs, travel-size bottle of soap, dozens of bottles, and a bra that was hands-free so that I could keep working on the computer while I was pumping. (The bra looked like a cross between something Gaultier designed for Madonna and a medieval torture device.)


An arsenal of pumping products (Photo: Thinkstock)

I washed the pump parts in the bathroom sink, and for extra protection, I cleaned everything off with travel wipes. I cleared out the minibar and stored the bottles there, and the hotel offered to keep the ice packs in its freezer. Let’s just say, it was quite a production.

Between meetings, I raced back to the room to pump. At the end of the three-day trip, I proudly lugged back about six pounds of milk and even pumped in the cab on the way to Union Station so that I wouldn’t have to deal with it on the Acela train. I had a lovely female cab driver, so I told her what I was doing. She congratulated me for being so intrepid.

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A couple of months later, I went to Paris for a friend’s 50th birthday — a trip I had committed to long before I was pregnant. Instead of a handbag, I toted around my bulky Medela Pump In Style, which was disguised in a black nylon bag. I had read somewhere that it was designed to look like a Kate Spade tote, but that so wasn’t the case. I felt like I stuck out in très-chic Paris, and my back ached after a couple of days lugging the contraption around. But it was easier than racing back to my rental apartment every few hours.

I pumped my way around Paris: hotel bathrooms, restaurant bathrooms, backs of taxis (turn the music up, s’il vous plaît!) — you name it.

There must have been something in the French water or food because I was a pumping dynamo in Paris: I left the city after four days with 14 pounds of milk. I had heard stories about French customs agents disposing of breast milk, so I froze it all in Lansinoh plastic storage pouches, put them in cooler bags with ice packs, and packed everything away in my suitcase. I figured the cold luggage hold would help keep the milk as frozen as possible during the flight back. It worked!

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I had a whole travel system worked out for my pump: extra battery packs, car chargers, foreign plugs. On flights, I hid out in the airplane lavatories, trying to explain through the closed door when other passengers got impatient and started knocking. It was disgusting being in a cramped, dirty airplane bathroom, so I was careful not to touch anything. I never dared pump in my airplane seat.

On long car rides with my husband, I pumped in the back seat. The first time Jonathan heard the motorized pump, he thought there was something wrong with the car. It sounded like a wheezing oil derrick.

I also hacked together a hands-free system for times when I had to do long drives alone, with my handy strapless pumping bra and a poncho so that passing truck drivers wouldn’t get an eyeful. Jonathan wondered if a person could get arrested for pumping and driving.

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I’m lucky that I never got yelled at by a flight attendant or had my breast milk confiscated my customs, though at a hotel in Jamaica I stupidly left a couple of empty bottles out on the counter without cleaning them and found that a huge water bug had crawled into one of them. The hotel wasn’t dirty; that’s just life in the Caribbean. The restaurant staff boiled the bottles to disinfect them. I still shudder when I think of that bug drinking my milk.

By the end of the year, I was worn out. My husband and I had planned a trip to Namibia for a few weeks after Lucy turned 1, so as her first birthday approached, I started powering down. I had committed to breastfeeding for a year, and by no means did I want to drag that pump around on safari.

I’d like to say that I was wistful. I missed the quiet time, feeding and bonding with my daughter, but I didn’t miss the not-so-quiet time with my pump.

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