I’m taking a complete detour from our usual DIY talk today, and after receiving so much interest from you, I’m going to dive into the topic of traveling while nursing – without baby. (Friends, I tried to keep this brief, but I’m an over-sharer, ha!) Last month, Scott and I celebrated our 10 year anniversary in Malibu, while leaving behind our then-9-month-old baby girl at home with her grandparents. I was a wreck over it. Not because we didn’t think that decompressing and refueling alone (and yet together) wouldn’t be worth it, but because our sweet Lucy was still nursing. The logistics of being able to travel for an entire week seemed so daunting, that we almost turned down my parents offer to house-pet-and-baby-sit. At the time that we made the decision to go on our adult-only adventure, Lucy was barely 4-ish months old, and we knew we’d have some work to do to feel comfortable and actually enjoy our time away.
When I asked if you’d like to know about our process for extended travel while leaving behind a nursing baby, I was surprised by your overwhelming response. I’ve continued to receive messages from many of you that said, Yes! Yes, please! So if our experience can help another mom and dad, I’m happy to share our experience with you! We had a hard time finding all the information we needed in one place, so I’m pulling it together here, today. The great news is that we not only traveled more than halfway across the country for 7 days, but we returned home to a happy baby and with close to 130 ounces of frozen breast milk!
We wanted to be able to travel for an extended period of time (in our case this was 1 week), maintain my milk supply (with pumping) and find an affordable solution to transport the milk from Malibu to Chicago. In this post, I’ll break down:
• How we prepared for an extended trip without baby
• How I maintained supply while we were away
• How we made it home – with 10 hours of travel in-between – with frozen milk without paying hundreds of dollars to ship it.
If you’ve landed on this post with a similar goal, let’s dive in!
Before Our Trip
We can only speak to our experience, but we knew that we wanted Lucy to be sleeping through the night by my parents arrival, and after speaking with our pediatrician, we received encouragement to begin sleep training. We spoke to friends with children and read countless articles on the topic, and by 4.5 months, Lucy was a champion sleeper. She does extremely well with routine; in our experience, we’ve learned that sleep begets sleep, and to this day, she take two naps during the day (that total anywhere from 2-3 hours) and sleeps for about 11 hours at night. We worked hard on her sleep schedule, and we continue work on it every single day! She had also transitioned to solid foods before we left, but she still nursed in the morning, after every nap and before bed.
In the several months leading up to our trip, I began pumping after most feedings to build up a supply for my parents, and for a few weeks, I would pump and then feed her that expressed milk, so that we could get a sense for how many ounces she needed at each feeding (since it’s anyone’s guess how much a baby drinks during a nursing session!). Testing the ounces and learning how much she needed meant that I knew how much I needed to pump (and in which amounts) so that my parents would have the milk they needed while we were away. By the morning of our flight, we had just enough milk for my parents – almost to the ounce. I don’t want to minimize how time consuming this preparation was (both sleep and food), but it was important to us to allow us the peace of mind while we would be away.
A note on bottle feeding: Some of you asked how we got Lucy to drink from a bottle. We gave her a bottle from a very young age – probably starting around a week old – so that Scott and family could take turns feeding her. I remember wondering if she would be confused going between me and the bottle (a fear, I think, that may have been instilled during a breastfeeding class) but she gladly fed from either. We tried a few different brands, but without a doubt, her favorite is the Comotomo!
Finding a Solution to Transport Milk
Probably the largest obstacle we had to overcome was figuring out how to get my pumped milk from Malibu to Chicago. All of the milk we’d be transporting would be frozen, and it would need to stay frozen for the duration of our travel. We quickly learned that there are a lot of great options out there for smaller trips (say, 2-3 days), such as Milk Stork. Milk Stork will ship you a box, dry ice and all packaging supplies, and then you can ship your milk back home (up to a certain amount), so that it’s at your doorstep when you return. That said, it comes at a cost. There was also the option to pack the milk ourselves in a styrofoam cooler with dry ice, but when we called FedEx and UPS locations around Malibu, many of them refused to handle dry ice, or their shipping rates were upwards of $300+ for such large quantities and weight.
So we thought, can we somehow pack our frozen milk in a cooler and carry it home on the plane? After digging through TSA Guidelines, we learned that breast milk can be carried onto a flight within ‘reasonable quantities’, but there was no mention as to what was considered reasonable. We ultimately decided that if we could fit all of the frozen milk in a carry-on bag, we would simply ask for a supervisor should we run into any issues. We also printed out the TSA Guidelines in case anyone questioned us.
Our Cooler + Practice Runs
The next step was finding a cooler that we could use as our carry-on, so I’ll save everyone the trouble and tell you that this is the cooler (size medium) that became the hero of our trip! Ice Mule #ftw. We read the hundreds of five star reviews, and it continued to rise to the top of every one of our cooler searches. It has the ability to roll up for easy storage, plus, the price was right! In the weeks leading up to our trip, we did ‘milk tests,’ which meant that we tested different ways of packaging bags of frozen milk in the cooler and checking to see how it held up 8+ hours later. So that we didn’t waste any of my milk, we tested both cow’s milk and almond milk, and yes, it’s every bit as hilarious as it sounds! Scott found this cheat sheet to packaging breast milk for long periods of transit, and, aside from a few modifications, it worked like a dream. After close to 9 hours, our ‘milk tests’ were still completely frozen! I’ll dive into exactly how we packaged the real breast milk in a moment.
Our best friend + hero, The Ice Mule.
Packing + Pumping
Scott and I are both light packers, traveling with one carry-on suitcase each for the week. In Scott’s suitcase, we were also able to fit my electric breast pump, storage bags and cooler. We made sure to book an Airbnb with a full kitchen, so that we could have access to a sink and full sized freezer, and during our stay, I pumped every time that Lucy would normally eat, bagged and froze the milk. I may have been off schedule an hour or two once or twice, but it was important to me that I keep up my supply, since Lucy is nearing her one year birthday (the thought makes me cry, my sweet girl!) and I was worried I may start weaning if I wasn’t diligent. Is that a thing? I honestly don’t know if that would have happened, but I didn’t want to risk it (first time mom here)! Note: Most hotels will also accommodate the request to have a freezer in your room if you ask.
A note on travel days: Between drives to and from the airports, 4.5 hour flights and rental car pick ups and drop offs, our travel days were long. I looked up ‘Nursing Rooms’ in the Chicago O’Hare and LAX airports, so that I could pump before takeoff and after landing. This helped to keep me comfortable, and I found that both airports had several private rooms where I could do this!
And a (not so?) funny side story: On our first full day in Malibu, the Santa Ana winds blew down the canyon where we were staying, and our power went out for 12 hours. This meant I had no way to use my electric pump, and the several bags of milk in our freezer were vulnerable. Because of the power outage, the traffic lights went out in Malibu along PCH, and we ended up being stuck in traffic for hours, putting me very behind on my pumping schedule. I wasn’t too worried about missing one pumping session, but when I realized I wouldn’t be able to pump at all (read: no electricity!), the hosts at our Airbnb went out and purchased me a manual pump. YOU GUYS. And then they filled a cooler with ice and gave us access to/from their home so that we could keep our milk frozen! They went above and beyond, and we are eternally grateful! That manual pump ended up being a necessity throughout the rest of our stay, because we could bring it along on day trips, and I could pump in the car, say, if we were driving from a hike to a dinner reservation.
Preparing Breast Milk for Transit
At the end of our stay, I had almost 130 ounces of milk that needed to make it from our Malibu freezer to our Chicago freezer. Could we do it? (Spoiler: Yes, yes we could.) Note: Almost all of the bags of milk were 4 oz. or more (with some falling in the 3-ish oz. range), because we learned from our milk tests that smaller amounts got slushy around the edges.
We followed this document, with a few minor differences. Our process looked like this:
• We started by insulating the individual bags of frozen milk with newspaper. Once we had 4 bags of insulated milk, we wrapped those 4 together with a double layer of newspaper, and we packaged them in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag. We did this same process for every 4 bags, which looked like this:
• The bottom layer of our cooler was lined with ice packs, which was simply additional breast milk storage bags that we filled halfway with water and froze the evening before!
• We added the 4-packs of milk to the bag, and we lined the outer layer with more ice packs. Before closing the cooler, we laid more ice packs on the top, so that all of the milk was fully encased by ice packs:
The cooler is unique in that once it’s closed up, you blow into the side for extra padding and insulation. (We have the medium size, seen above.) When we were all packed up, it was heavy. Even still, we could throw it over our shoulder and carry it right onto the plane! Which brings me to…
Our Experience Through TSA
I think I must have been holding my breath the entire time we were in Malibu, because I was so, so nervous for TSA Day. (I even had a few nightmares beforehand in which all of our milk was tossed in the trash while I watched in horror; good gravy, I shudder thinking about it now!) But I have the best news – we sailed through TSA without a hitch! We went back and forth on putting our cooler through the X-ray, but in the end, we decided to do it since no negative side effects have been found. Even still and not surprisingly, our cooler was flagged, and it went to a screening area where a TSA agent had to open the bag.
I started to panic at that point, but I was immediately relieved when she explained that she didn’t need to unpack each and every bag. While wearing gloves, all she did was feel through the plastic to make sure that there was no liquid. She told us that her main concern was to ensure that all contents were completely solid. In other words, she had to feel that the milk was frozen. (If we were packing liquid milk, there was a strong chance that they would’ve tested the bags of milk.) After 3 minutes, she gave us permission to repack our cooler, and we were off!
From Malibu to Chicago (which included a car to a plane to a train to another car) was 10 hours. 10. Hours. As soon as we walked in the door, we made an assembly line around our kitchen island, and everyone – grandparents included – began unwrapping the milk. All of the milk was still completely frozen. You guys, I got misty. The milk made it! I finally let out that huge sigh of relief that I’d been hanging onto for far too long.
If you’ve read this whole post, it might mean that you’re also a parent that has fallen down the internet rabbit hole, hoping to find a solution that will make traveling while nursing a possibility. My hope is that this article helps you even in the smallest way! Because every experience is going to be different, I’m all ears if you want to talk or have more questions. And if you have advice of your own, please feel free to share in the comments! Let’s talk.