Had someone asked me when I started my first job what I thought would be the greatest challenge for a female professional, I probably would have popped out some big-concept answer: gender equality, equal pay, or work-life balance. During the 18 years since, I have generally thrived as a scholar in the think-tank world. I’ve had difficult times—raising every penny to support research projects, dealing with a hostile research field in China, breaking an ankle and hopping around Burma on crutches—but nothing seemed out of reach or likely to defeat me.
Or so I thought before I became a breastfeeding mother. I can now say with confidence that traveling internationally with pumped breast milk has been the greatest challenge of my working career.
If you want to bring the liquid gold that is your breast milk back to your baby—whom you, guilt-laden, left with your husband when you flew off on business—you’ll face drama and ordeals beyond your wildest imaginings. Not every mother can, or wants, to breastfeed, but that’s what I think is best for our 1-year-old baby girl because of the nutritional value, antibodies, and long-term health benefits that breastfeeding confers. And with the continuing shortage of baby formula in the U.S., breastfeeding has taken on an almost altruistic aspect: reserving the baby formula for those who can’t nurse. If all goes well, I’d like to continue breastfeeding for another year until my baby is 2, as recommended by the World Health Organization.
For a working parent, breastfeeding is complicated on any given day. You have to pump every couple of hours, and you need a private space to do so—I’ve done my fair share of pumping inside a bathroom stall, but I wouldn’t call that optimal. Then you need access to a refrigerator so that you can store the pumped milk in bottles or sachets and bring them home chilled or frozen at the end of the day. But if you are on a transpacific or transatlantic trip, the pumping is the least of your worries.
I had been a million-miler before the COVID-19 pandemic brought a two-year hiatus to my international travel. A hiatus of another sort came when I had my baby in June 2021. But a return to the hectic schedule of the before times came in June, when I needed to take three five-day overseas business trips in one month, involving two long-haul flights from Washington, D.C., to Europe and one to Southeast Asia.
On these flights, I tried to pump every three hours. So, on the 16-hour outward-bound leg from San Francisco to Singapore, where I was attending the Shangri-La Dialogue defense summit, this schedule meant that I pumped five times—anything less would have resulted in painful engorgement and an embarrassingly soaked shirtfront. But I was competing with nearly 200 other passengers for use of the three bathrooms in economy: Every time I emerged from the cubicle after 15 minutes of pumping, the people waiting outside would give me a look of thinly veiled condemnation. Well, I get it: Who doesn’t hate those selfish people who occupy the bathroom for an annoyingly long time?
On another trip back from Europe, when I was traveling in business class, I was able to use the pump from my seat when the cabin was dark. This worked out fine—except for when the device came loose from where I thought I’d stowed it and flew across the cabin during landing. A female passenger returned it to me. “I totally understand. It is not easy,” she said kindly.
To date, I have not figured out an efficient way of saving the breast milk I’ve pumped on the outward leg of a trip. If not immediately consumed, pumped milk can be safely stored for up to four hours at room temperature and four days in a refrigerator. Frozen milk has a longer life, so if you are traveling for more than four days, freezing is the only option. But flight attendants won’t let you put your sachets in the plane’s refrigerator, presumably for health or security reasons. With no prospect of refrigeration inside the four-hour window, I had to dump my liquid gold in the sink. A heartbreaking waste.
Once on the ground, freezing the milk in order to bring it back to the U.S. becomes the primary challenge. Mini fridges in hotel rooms supply ruinously expensive beverages but do not come with a freezer. (The ice maker is down the hall, remember?) This means that the only option for freezing your milk baggies is to call the front desk and ask to use the hotel kitchen’s freezer.
You’d think this would be easy because hotels have kitchens and kitchens have freezers, right? Nope.
Local regulations governing what’s available to hotel guests vary wildly. In some countries, such as Singapore, hotels have a designated freezer for guests: The concierge will bring up your cooler bag to accept a new sachet of milk and return it to the freezer. But things are different in European countries.
In Oslo, Norway, I was shocked when the hotel’s front-desk staff told me on the phone that they did not have a freezer that I would be permitted to use. I rushed downstairs to plead with the manager. Although, as I learned, she was herself a mother of two, she showed little sympathy—and saw no reason to depart from the rules even as I tried to explain why the breast milk had to be frozen to survive my 15-hour journey home. “Just dump it,” she said with a shrug.
Things were slightly better on a trip to Athens, Greece. I negotiated a “pass” to the hotel’s kitchen freezer that enabled me to sneak in between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. to save my stash. My cooler sat next to a tray of beautiful baklava pastries. Hygienic? Probably not. Safe? Unlikely, because many staff members could access the freezer during the day. But it was better than nothing.
Then, after all that effort, the security agents at the Athens airport refused to let me carry the frozen breast milk through the checkpoint because there was “no baby.” Never mind that this defied logic: If I was traveling with my baby, I wouldn’t be carrying supplies of frozen pumped milk, would I?
Over the next hour, the head security agent made intense calls to other airport officials, to the airline representatives, and to the agents at the gate, who were all made aware of a mother without a baby trying to bring frozen breast milk on a flight. No one gave a hard no, but the original security agent was still reluctant. When she finally gave in to her supervisor’s advice to let me go ahead, she made sure that the sachets of breast milk (which had been exposed in the open for a whole hour) were X-rayed, inspected by hand, and tested for traces of explosives.
On the flight, I asked the cabin crew whether I could put my cooler in the airplane’s freezer. Naturally, the answer was no. The contents had melted by the time I got home. Another waste.
If you’re traveling from the U.S., the TSA allows you either to stow breast milk in checked luggage or, subject to security screening, to carry on breast milk—even when you are traveling without your baby. (I have not tested this on domestic flights, though I’ve heard stories about obstructive TSA agents who seem not to know their own rules.) But things are less predictable if you’re traveling to the U.S. After that lesson from Athens, I decided to try putting my frozen breast milk in checked luggage on my next homeward-bound flight.
Another challenge is that the temperature of the cargo hold varies considerably. For example, on a Boeing 787, the cargo compartment will typically record temperatures anywhere from 39 to 81 degrees Fahrenheit. The travel time for my return journey from Singapore to Washington was 23 hours. I agonized the whole time about how my breast milk, which was protected by only a few ice packs, must be melting—especially during a layover in 100-degree heat in Tokyo. The breast milk was indeed more than half melted by the time I arrived home—and good for only another 24 hours.
Having learned another lesson, this one about checked luggage, I went searching for specialized equipment or services that could help. I found Milk Stork, a company that offers either to ship your frozen breast milk back home or to supply insulated boxes that you can use yourself as checked luggage. I discovered no better option, but the price was steep. Milk Stork’s overnight-shipment service, using its highest-capacity cooler, costs $399 per cooler. Though pricey, the cooler is robust and reusable, but each subsequent shipping label costs $180. I picked the “Freeze & Check” option, which includes just the gear—a smaller box and a tote bag—and totals $219. Shipping via FedEx cost me another $80.
Even if you are traveling for work, your employer is unlikely to cover such charges. Nor will your health insurer. If you travel a lot and have to ship breast milk back home, the cost could quickly add up to thousands of dollars.
This contradiction—that society exhorts people to breastfeed yet makes transporting milk so hard—seems ironic, to say the least. Another irony I’ve observed is that, among hotel and airport-security staff, men tend to be kinder or more lenient. This could be because men are uncomfortable with a situation that involves women’s needs and bodily functions and just want the issue to go away—and being accommodating is the easiest way to make that happen. But I have also had the sense that women can be less sympathetic—they had to put up with such hardships, so why shouldn’t you?
I have to hope that we can make it a little easier for people who travel for work to bring their breast milk home to nurture the next generation. The task is difficult not because of the individual effort involved—that we can take care of—but because the rules that different countries have imposed on hotel food hygiene and airport security were devised with nary a thought for breastfeeding parents and their babies. If the world could see this, and if people could be nicer about it, then we might all benefit from the milk of human kindness.