Welcome to a shared moment of motherhood WTF?! Where the operational logistics of pumping meet the unforgiving expectations of international business travel. Here the motherhood mantra of pumping anywhere is literally put to the test. We have found ways of consistently getting milk half-way across the world without having to ship or procure dry ice. Along the way we have both saved and lost a fair amount of milk, hence the term experiment. Maybe storing a cooler full of breast milk in a warming hotel room in the summer in Indonesia was not a great idea after all. But we did learn how to clean pump parts without potable water. It might have been nice to realize (sooner) that putting rectangular objects into cylindrical ones is inefficient. Instead ice and drama were scattered all over a friend’s apartment in Germany. Anyway, it can be done. You can pump while traveling internationally and bring home the breast milk (chilled or frozen) without using dry ice. Is it a frictionless experience? No. We’re trying to make it better, one experiment at a time, one trip at a time.
To start, here is our most usable and functional system to date:
Carry on a Vessel
Be ready for the idea that the airline security administration will throw away your ice. In the US the policy states that you can bring ice packs to keep breast milk cold, but the fine print of that policy renders it useless. Ice packs have to be frozen solid. In practice this means that if you leave your hotel room in the morning, have meetings all day, and then try to catch a flight that night your packs will probably be confiscated. In Europe and Asia there is no allowance for ice packs anyway. In fact you cannot even bring breast milk onboard without having a baby in your arms. But why? We can’t understand. Instead, you’ll have to be ready with a handful of plastic bags so that you can get ice in the terminal (talk to the bartender), or on the plane (the stewardess), or worst case you can buy a huge cup of soda and pour out the soda (when everyone is being strict).
The “vessel” is a specific sort of giant thermos. One that is a double-wall, vacuum-sealed, wide-mouth, and stainless steel. So far we only know of two – one by Yeti, one by RTIC. They are a bit bulky, so for the flight and work-day the half-gallon is plenty. This size can hold 5-8 bags of chilled liquid breast milk (5-6 oz each) plus ice. If you have the patience, do let the milk sit out until it reaches room temperature before migrating it into the vessel. This will extend the longevity of the chilling temperature inside. Even though seemingly unimportant IRL every item that is added readjusts the temperature of the entire vessel. If you add a big block of ice everything inside will get a little bit cooler. If you add a steaming hot dumpling everything will get a bit warmer. The nuanced reality of this phenomena is that a body temp bag of milk will in fact make everything inside a wee bit warmer. The temperature of the whole vessel adjusts when anything is added. A mechanical engineer will assure you that it takes a crazy inefficient amount of energy to make warm things cold. Which after twenty-four hours of adding human body temperature milk bags does add up. A two-part international flight followed by a full work day and then a three-hour train ride to your final destination may require judicious management of the vessel temperature. If you want to be intense about it you can even carry a mini pre-chilling vessel.
Check a Cooler
Short domestic trips or super short international trips where you don’t even feel jet lag because you were in-and-out before your soul could catch up with your body might be managed entirely with refrigerated milk. You may never need to talk to the hotel desk for access to freezer space. But breastmilk will eventually spoil in the fridge, so the travel time plus the time it takes for the baby consume the milk after you’re home both have to be counted. If the trip is quick enough you can pop the mass of refrigerated milk it into the freezer when you get home. If the trip is more than four days you probably need to freeze it abroad. Freezing the milk abroad also means bringing it back frozen since breastmilk cannot be de-thawed and then re-frozen.
We have kept frozen milk frozen by packing vessels to the brim with fully frozen milk and then surrounding those vessels with ice in a cooler. That cooler then gets checked as luggage. Air can rapidly warm the vessel from the inside. General thermo rule is that air is the enemy. Foam, towels, socks, whatever you’ve got are better than air. But ideally the inside of the vessel is one solid mass of frozen milk bags.
At first we tried freezing the milk in the vessel directly. Unfortunately the vessel is so good at what it does (maintaining the temp inside) that it keeps the milk from freezing in the freezer. Oh so ironic. Milk also freezes slower when piled up into a large mass of bags vs when isolated in the freezer alone. Instead we freeze everything separately so that it freezes faster. Each day a gift box of sushi rolled bagged liquid milk can be added to the freezer so that by the end of the week you have a fully frozen archive of cylindrical milk. Some hotel freezers are the size of rooms, others are tiny competitive spaces where things get shoved and toppled. The gift boxes can help your milk from being forever lost in France (true story). They’re dainty enough that they tend to get placed up front or on top of other things.
Then the day of departure you can collect your archive of milk, assemble the vessels, put them into the cooler, and check the whole ordeal in cargo. Airlines have international checked baggage policies which seem to be more consistent than international shipping regulations for produce. Yep, breastmilk is considered to be exported produce when crossing international borders. ?! At least on an airline you know they will take it. Though it does make for one hilarious eye brow raise by the immigration agent when he learns that the “produce” you are carrying is in fact two-gallons of breastmilk.
Pump Where You Are
An all-in-one bra with a loose-fitting shirt makes it possible to slip flanges up your shirt and put together pumping assemblies under a nursing cover without showing skin. Tucking into a corner may reduce the number of bewildered glances but finding some privacy in the anonymity can be less disruptive to the time-table of travel then stopping for twenty minutes in Mamavas. Or even if plan A is full-privacy the portability of this set up can be a Plan B back-up for when the lactation room is full or shit goes haywire and you’re running late. Being ready to pump anywhere can allow you to catch what might otherwise be a missed pumping session.
Women who pumped in the 1990s will take one look at this set up and laugh. If only we knew what life was like with a fifteen pound backpack pump requiring a 220v plug. Begone are the days of the power outlet, the secondary zip-front hands-free bra, and the necessity of a sink before and after every single session. Hand sanitizer and an endless supply of fresh parts can take you through situations where you might not trust the potability of the water anyway. Skipping the train station bathroom or the re-circulated water on an airplane never felt more liberating.
Pumping today has more technology and investment than decades prior yet still the friction of the experience is palpable. Building an archive of breast milk at home only to deplete it while traveling internationally is a three-month endeavor of over-clocking production. The more trips you have in a year the more impossible the replenishment task, mounting an already significant pressure for working moms to switch to formula. The task is achievable but the systems, equipment, and cultural support are sparse. This we can change by trying. Thanks to Sally for bravely taking the first journey with no tools and coming back with one.