If you’re a mom who travels often (whether for business trips or family vacations), you likely have at least one memorable tale of nursing or pumping in an airport. From cramming into a tiny bathroom stall to futilely trying not to expose yourself in a busy terminal, surviving as a lactating jet-setter makes navigating TSA checkpoints seem like child’s play.
Although pediatricians stress that breast milk boasts benefits that can last a lifetime—including increasing resistance to disease and infection early in life and reducing the risk of obesity, diabetes, asthma and other illnesses long-term— it’s a struggle for frequent flyers.
Out of place
The lack of pumping-appropriate rooms in airports makes it difficult for traveling moms to meet their breastfeeding goals. Working moms who need to express themselves en route to their destinations are often forced into particularly uncomfortable, unsanitary situations without any privacy, seating or space.
New mom Cathy Gessert is a financial executive in San Francisco who travels
for work each week from the Bay Area to Denver and Boston. For the most part, Gessert pumps before arriving at the airport, but she recalls a time when she had no choice but to pump before boarding her six-hour flight home and tucked into a pocket-sized restroom in Boston Logan International Airport.
“The bathroom had just two stalls,” remembers Gessert, who hung her pump on the door hook, so it wouldn’t touch the grimy floor. “As I was pumping a flight arrived. People began forming in a line outside of the stalls. … It was an awkward experience.”
Amanda Malone Kink, a new mom from Baltimore, remembers her experience pumping in a family restroom. It was early in the day, so unlike Gessert, she wasn’t so worried about lines outside of her stall and, luckily, the facility was relatively clean. But the bathroom didn’t have anywhere to sit comfortably or place her pump, so she was forced to stand at the sink while expressing milk.
“Of course, I failed to properly lock the bathroom door,” says Kink with a laugh. Sure enough, as she stood at the sink steadying her pump, completely exposed, a member of the cleaning crew poked her head in the door.
Gessert and Kink aren’t alone in their struggle to find a passable place to pump while traveling. In fact, research shows that many U.S. facilities are far from breastfeeding-friendly. A study published in Breastfeeding Medicine found that only eight airports out of the 100 studied contained sufficient lactation rooms.
According to study author Joan Ortiz, RN, BSN, IBCLC, president of the Limerick Workplace Lactation Program in Burbank, California, a proper lactation room should be a sanitary, private room (other than a bathroom) that contains a place to sit, a table to place the pump and an electrical outlet to plug it in.
Finding somewhere to nurse baby is often less difficult because moms can use a nursing cover for added privacy, but Ortiz contends that when you’re pumping, having a private lactation room is a necessity.
Certain airports, including San Francisco International, San Jose International, Minneapolis-St. Paul International, Baltimore Washington International, Indianapolis International, Akron-Canton Regional, Dane County Regional and Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional provide facilities that meet sufficiency standards. However, researchers also found that many airports included in the study consider unisex or family bathrooms, which typically lack appropriate seating, satisfactory places to pump.
The shortage of appropriate facilities has forced women like Megan Rumney, a mother of two from Severna Park, Maryland, to stop breastfeeding altogether. Rumney, who travels weekly for her job as a sales executive, found pumping in airports to be too difficult. “When my second child came along, I gave up breastfeeding before I wanted to because I couldn’t deal with it anymore,” she admits. “Some airports have gotten better in recent years, but we still need to do more.”
Thankfully, change is in the making. New laws, such as the Friendly Airports for Mothers Act (FAM Act), which was introduced by U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a democrat from Illinois, when she was a House Representative in 2016, are designed to address some of the obstacles facing traveling moms. The FAM Act would ensure that breastfeeding moms traveling through medium and large airports—including 60 of the nation’s major airports—have access to clean and convenient lactation rooms within two years of the law’s passage. The legislation would enable airports to use federal airport improvement funds to comply.
“My daughter, Abigail, is going to be turning 2 years old soon, and she is an incredible source of joy for my husband, Bryan, and me. But when we had Abigail, I quickly learned that flying with my daughter added an entirely new and unexpected challenge,” says Duckworth. “Finding a clean and private space to breastfeed or pump in an airport can be burdensome and stressful, if not impossible. I’ve also heard from countless other mothers about their frustrating and disheartening air travel experiences—it’s not uncommon for us moms to be directed to a bathroom or janitor’s closet to express breast milk.”
The congresswoman hoped to advance the legislation, which passed the Senate with broad bipartisan support last year, through the House of Representatives and to the President’s desk by the end of 2016. Although the House did not address the FAM Act by the end of the year, Duckworth remains committed to championing the legislation in the next Congress.
In the meantime, Ortiz encourages breastfeeding moms to get creative when airports don’t provide suitable areas for breastfeeding or pumping. “Airports usually have white courtesy phones in terminals,” she says. “When you can’t find a place to pump, pick up the phone and ask for a private room (besides a bathroom) like a conference room or prayer room.”
Ortiz also suggests requesting access to the airport’s executive lounge. She notes that if you tell them you need to pump or breastfeed, they’ll often let you in for free or just charge you for a day pass, which in some cases might be worth it.
Do a little research before your trip on the best places to pump at the airports you’ll be traveling through. If you’re lucky, being inventive and having a plan may save you from pumping with one foot on a bathroom stall door.