With family living on the other coast, we knew we would be traveling with our baby. While I read a lot about how to travel with baby, I missed the boat on how to survive breastfeeding while flying.
I knew the advice nurse baby during takeoff and landing, but little did I know that this was actually hard to achieve.
Additionally, like most advice I did get, it didn’t always match my baby or I had no idea how to accomplish it.
Here are the biggest lessons I learned and things I wished someone had told me before that first flight.
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1. Nurse during take-off and landing
This piece of advice I was actually told, numerous times. Not only does nursing during take off and landing help their ears but also results in a boob snooze as the lull of the engines along with yummy milk puts baby to sleep. However, this is easier said than done which is why a lot of these tips will help you accomplish this to have a peaceful flight with a happy, well-rested baby.
2. Nurse about one hour before take-off
To accomplish nursing during take-off, it is very important to time the nursing session before the take off nursing session. You know your baby best in terms of schedules, but what I have found to work is nursing about one hour before take-off.
Why? You are trying to avoid a hungry baby 30 minutes before take-off. I ended up in this situation and tried to hold off feeding until we were taking off. The result? She nursed and then proceeded to puke everywhere. Not only that, but if you nurse for about an hour before takeoff, your baby won’t be hungry during one of the busiest times during your flight. The takeoff process is hectic as is because flight attendants are going over important safety instructions and your fellow passengers are starting to settle in. Generally, you are not allowed to get up and move around the cabin during take off so you are limited to your seat with your baby. Ease the stress on yourself by making sure that your baby is well rested so she does not need to be overly coddled when you are settling in during takeoff. The best way to do this is by nursing one hour before takeoff.
3. Bring extra clothing for baby, yourself and anyone else who will hold baby
When L puked and coated me from head to toe, I only had 3 extra onesies, which as you can imagine didn’t help me much. I really wish someone had emphasized that I should bring an extra pair of clothing for me and anyone I was traveling with.
Since then, I have heard of many stories where parents have a diaper explosion which leaked all over them. I have yet to hear of a single story where they had an extra outfit. The story always ends with having to smell for the rest of the day of travel.
While unfortunately this means that you need to pack a little bit more in your diaper bag, the good news is that many airlines will generally allow you to fly with a diaper bag in addition to your carry on and personal item. For your baby, continue to pack more than one onesie. Three pairs of outfits has usually been a good number for me. But if you know that your baby is sick, then you might want to take more in case they throw up or go number to unexpectedly.
When you are packing an extra pair of clothes for yourself, remember that simplicity is key. Pack light and airy t-shirts as well as pants or leggings. While it might not be super handy to pack along an extra nursing bra, you may want to bring along additional underwear. Don’t forget to bring an extra pair of clothes for any younger children like toddlers that you may be traveling with as well.
4. Ask a flight attendant for club soda to remove stains
If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of being covered in vomit or poop, then you should ask for club soda and napkins. Rub your clothing with it. The chances of the stain coming out improve if you rinse it with club soda before it dries.
This tip is best used for cleaning up small stains that don’t require a complete change of clothing. If you have a larger mess on hand, then skip this step altogether and opt for packing along a spare plastic bag. When you bring along a plastic bag, you can stuff in the dirty clothes and seal it tight without having to worry about any additional leaks or and obtrusive odors from the soiled clothing.
5. Utilize a nursing cover for the distracted nurser
While you won’t have this issue initially, once your newborn discovers the world at around 3 months, it can be impossible to keep them latched. As their eye sight and ability to take in the world around them develops, this milestone can mean that you can only nurse in a quiet environment with no distractions.
Achieving this on a plane is near impossible. We flew when L was 6 months old and all day and she nursed ONCE! I was in so much pain by the end of the day, I was sure I had either a clogged duct or worse, mastitis. The magic solution, a nursing cover. I never used one before flying because I didn’t feel the need but let me tell you, after that first flight I religiously used one for 3 months straight. I only recommend this one to other moms because you can still see your baby and that is so essential when establishing a good latch.
6. Wear baby
If I don’t need the stroller at my destination, I don’t bring one. Instead I wear baby. If you wear baby, you don’t have to take baby out for security. You can go through the metal detector with baby in the carrier.
Your stroller won’t get broken by the airlines. The one time we brought the stroller, it came back with a broken wheel after gate checking it. This happens all the time and it’s a pain to try to get them to pay for the damages.
Additionally, you must wait for it at the gate. I have also found both traveling alone or with my husband, it is so much easier to zip through a crowded airport with baby strapped to you than with a stroller.
When it comes to breastfeeding, I have found that I can lower the carrier and breastfeed while baby is in the carrier. This was a great way to help baby fall asleep during a long layover.
Now, my toddler would rather push the stroller and sometimes it’s impossible to convince her to ride in it. Our recent trip resulted in me pushing the stroller and trying to corral a toddler.
7. Pumping checklist for air travel
If you at all use a pump, then you should bring it. BUT, make sure to pack it in your carry-on. If your luggage gets lost or damaged, then you will have no pump. So even if you don’t need it for travel but need it during your trip, bring it as a carry-on.
Check your specific airline beforehand to see the details on how to travel with your pump but as long as you tell TSA what it is, you should be fine. They also can’t test your milk, only the bag, so inform them that it’s breastmilk.
If you are going to be traveling on a long distance flight, then it would be worth your while to bring along a manual pump, even if you are nursing. A manual pump gives you the ability to express milk and relieve yourself from engorgement without needing an electrical outlet. In a worst case scenario, if your manual pump fails you or you don’t have one, then you may have to resort to hand expressing your milk. The downside to this is that it can be tedious and cumbersome. When you pack along your hand pump, do not forget to bring a scarf, shawl, or blanket. This will allow you to cover up so that you can express your milk without having to worry about those around you. Oftentimes, you will be able to pump discreetly without having anyone ever know that you are doing it.
In addition to all of the items you need to pump and store, buy a battery pack for your pump, power outlets on planes aren’t always a given. Check that you have the following:
- Battery pack
- Milk storage bags
- Ice packs
- Pump and all of its pieces
8. Know how to manually express just in case
If you find yourself without a pump and/or your baby is unwilling to nurse, then you need to be able to manually express. This entails just using your hand to compress milk out of your breast in order to relieve some of the pain. If you just wait, then you could end up with a clogged duct or worse, mastitis.
I have had to rely on manually expressing during travel before because my baby was in that distracted phase and hadn’t discovered the wonders of a nursing cover at that point.
To manually express, there are a lot of diagrams online. Basically, you cup your breast by making a c shape with your hand. Press back towards your chest then roll your hand forward applying pressure.
Once you express your milk, try your best to save it. The best way to do this is by bringing along a clean baby bottle or using one that your baby just drank from. If you don’t have an extra baby bottle, you can even use a clean ziplock bag (just be sure to store it safely). You can express your milk by hand or directly onto this bottle and then have your baby feed with it when they wake up. Breast milk is liquid gold and if you can save it, you want to try your best to do so.
9. Do a diaper change and (you) should go also pee right before boarding
While almost all planes have changing stations in their bathrooms, they are so tiny. It is purely awful to change a baby on a plane.
Additionally, if you change baby right before boarding, you don’t have to worry if they fall asleep during take-off with the roar of the engines. Instead, you get to enjoy baby sleeping instead of screaming for the flight.
As a side note on diaper changing, I absolutely love the diaper clutch. You can throw it into any bag, which is such a nice plus when traveling. When you go to change baby, you only need to take the clutch and not the WHOLE diaper bag.
As this is my usually goal, I not only change baby but also make sure I pee. Nothing is worse than getting baby to sleep during take-off only to ruin that with having to get up to go pee.
10. Try to get an extra seat
Having that empty seat next to you can really make a difference. Even if baby is in your lap the whole time, you now have extra space to breastfeed and get comfortable.
I don’t recommend buying a seat but once you get to your gate, ask the person checking in at your gate if there are any empty seats.
Ask at the gate if the flight is full or if you could be moved so you have an empty seat next to you. If there is an empty seat, flight attendants are generally really good about giving it to the person with tiny kids so make sure to ask.
If they are able to move you so the empty seat is next to you, then board last so you don’t have to be stuck seated before you have to. This piece of advice is airline specific.
If you are flying an airline like Southwest, where there are no seat assignments, then make sure you board during the family boarding. Then your best luck at having an open seat next to you is to go to the back of the plane. Of course, if you have a tight layover, you’ll have to weigh the benefits of the open seat versus getting to de-plane sooner.
11. Use the safety guideline sheet for entertainment
Keeping a baby entertained on a plane if they aren’t sleeping can be a challenge. Babies love sharp images that have lots of color and/or high contrast. The safety information sheet you find in every sheet is a winner. Even my colic baby was quiet and engaged using this sheet.
12. Check the airports before travel for lactation rooms
While not all airports have lactation rooms or even ones that will be close enough to your gate to use, it is always a good idea to check. You might get lucky and the airport you are at will have one close to your gate.
If you need to pump, these are excellent places to find an outlet and some privacy. If you do need to pump and can’t find one, you could pump using a nursing cover if need be.
I have also found these rooms to be helpful for some downtime for baby. Some babies can fall asleep no matter what. That was not the case at all with my little one after reaching 3 months. I needed to be able to decrease the stimulation for her to be able to fall asleep and usually these rooms are empty.
13. A single restroom can fix almost any problem
If you need privacy. If you can’t get baby to latch. If you can’t get baby to stay on. If you need to get baby to sleep. Finding a handicap single bathroom is your answer.
This seriously saved me on one of our cross-country trips. We could not get L to sleep and she was so tired. She also wasn’t nursing well. During a layover, I found a single restroom, turned off the lights and nursed her. She nursed and fell right asleep. Some babies need darkness to sleep at a certain age and L was one of them. She just couldn’t shut her eyes if it was bright.
Another trick if you have one of those babies is to gently glide your hand over their eyes so they close them. Keep doing this on repeat until their eyes stay shut.
You’re almost ready to take off!
In addition to how to achieve nursing during lift-off, the plane nap and what to pack, I leave you with just one more piece of advice.
Any flight you take, no matter how many times baby has flown, is special.
I also promise you that no matter how exhausting it is to fly with a baby, toddlers are harder. During our last layover, L was convinced that a carry-on bag size check sign was her napping spot and flat out refused to leave it. So, remember to enjoy flying with your baby.
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Trina Fitzgerald is a wife, mom, and blogger. She is the co-author of the Week-by-Week Bump Smart Course, the Nesting Planner and the Breastfeeding Handbook. She attributes her success at breastfeeding her own children with working with lactation consultants in the hospital in the early stages and on a weekly basis afterwards. By writing at MomSmartNotHard, she educates mamas-to-be on all things pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. Read more about Trina.