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I’m a new mom. Here’s how I successfully pump while traveling for work

It’s a logistical puzzle to pump and ship milk home, but the more we have the courage to speak up, the easier we make this journey for the next person.

Recently, I deployed a human to production. Shipped at 11 pounds 3 ounces, he rapidly doubled in size in his first six months.

As I am breastfeeding exclusively alongside running the Developer Relations team at a major tech company, business trips pose a challenge. Within my first quarter back from parental leave, I had two international and one domestic trip planned. This meant solving the logistical puzzle of moving a large quantity of milk home (to the tune of 40-50 ounces) per day given the size of my baby.

Since I did extensive research in preparation and managed to successfully ferry milk home to my baby, I figured I’d pay it forward and share learnings I wished someone had written for me.

PACKING THE ESSENTIAL PUMP BAG

It’s important to establish which supplies you’ll need in your pump bag.

I pack for two use cases: 1) pumping on the airplane or in a nonideal area of an airport, and 2) pumping in a conference-provided mother’s room or a nonideal private area.

Packing list:

  • Insulated cooler backpack with separate compartments, so you can access pump items without subjecting them to warm or room-temperature air, which could compromise your milk
  • Insulated milk bag
  • Travel breast pump (ideally small and battery-powered) and bottles, and a manual pump for backup
  • Pump cleaning wipes
  • 2 refrigerator thermometers
  • Gallon zip-top bags
  • Printouts required for travel, including the TSA policy pages for traveling with breast milk and a pump, and the policy pages for the specific airline you’re flying with (some airlines will allow the pump to be an extra carry-on item)
  • A permanent pen to label milk bags
  • Travel pump parts cleaning kit
  • Long-lasting ice packs (must be frozen solid to pass through security)
  • Hand sanitizer wipes
  • Travel-size baby bottle dish soap
  • Big plastic container (to use as a makeshift dishpan for washing pump parts)
  • Battery pack backup
  • Nursing cover for pumping in your plane seat

TRAVEL TIPS

Pre-assemble pump parts and store them in zip-top bags separately. For a 10-12 hour flight, pack three kits, which include one pump part set, fully assembled with adapter and two milk bags. Pump one side at a time, using the same kit, and swap bags between sides (or when one is full). This way, you can avoid needing to clean your parts until you get to the hotel.

When it comes to temperature management, trust but verify. Use thermometers to ensure temperatures are staying cold enough to keep milk fresh. Human breast milk can last up to seven days when stored < 4C. Raise that to 8C, similar to a cooler with ice packs, and it decreases to 24 hours. An insulated milk bag with ice packs stored inside a cooler with ice packs can be 1-3C depending on ice freshness.

On two of my three trips, the hotel mini-fridge was only able to reach 8C on its own, but a steady supply of ice in zip-top bags brought it all the way to 4C. Beware of hotel rooms that have their power modulated by the key card because the refrigerator turns off when the room loses power. Use a business card to keep the power on in the room. Leave a note if necessary, so the cleaning staff are aware.

Ship (or tote) your breast milk home. Just as hospitals ship temperature-sensitive medical supplies, the same can be done for breast milk if shipped in a temperature-controlled box. For trips shorter than five days, my preference is to check the refrigeration box as checked luggage. Shipping breast milk overnight is really only worth it for longer trips. Whether you check it or overnight it, don’t forget to box it with one of your thermometers, so the caretaker who opens it can instantly verify the milk’s temperature.

Refrigeration boxes can be procured through a service that supplies full-service kits, or you can buy your own. Kits remove a lot of the headache in dealing with shipping milk, as the service manages all logistics and provides step-by-step instructions. You might choose to purchase your own box if you need something bigger, you’re an experienced veteran of milk logistics, or simply because it’s more eco-friendly to buy replacement engines and reuse the box.

HOW TO TALK ABOUT IT

Don’t be shy. As soon as I got over my shyness about talking to strangers or colleagues about my need to pump, I realized that most people are eager to help. Don’t be afraid to notify your adjacent seatmates about your need to pump on the plane. During all three of my trips, I found my seatmates to be very supportive, including one mom who had gone through the same adventure herself.

Surprisingly, I was the first person to ask three sets of conference organizers for a mother’s room or private space to pump, and yet each organizer was happy to accommodate my needs. Likewise, no one ever said no when I communicated my needs with managers–whether they were modifications to a travel itinerary or slightly shifting the start time of a team offsite for mother’s room availability. In fact, most of the time they’ve asked me first what would be most helpful.

I am fortunate to work at a company whose culture is open, progressive, and transparent, but I know this is not a universal experience in the tech industry. Even in less supportive environments, it’s important to work past our reservations for the sake of normalizing the breast pumping journey. You get zero percent of the things you don’t ask for, and the more we have the courage to speak up, the easier we make this journey for the next person.

Every time more parents take on the challenges, we collectively increase the demand for the products and services that makes the challenges easier. And every time we communicate our needs and challenges with folks around us, the more we normalize the adventure.

Originally published to Fast Company on January 29, 2020.

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