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Traveling with Milk: Points to Consider

Family in winter clothing traveling in a car with a thermos.

At holiday time, we often travel to see family members. It’s what we do. But lactating mothers may want to plan ahead when traveling with milk. Here are some questions to ask.  

Are you traveling by plane?

If you’re traveling by plane, you are allowed to take your milk on board in a carry-on. Unlike other liquids (e.g., shampoo) that must adhere to the 3-1-1 rule, human milk can be brought in a reasonable amount but no specific maximum is specified.

See the Transportation Safety Authority (TSA) page on guidelines for traveling with milk. Also see the Traveling with Children page for screen guidelines, whether you are traveling with or without your infant or child.

Notify an TSA agent that you are traveling with your milk and remove it from your carry-on. “Breast milk” is subject to screening, but you may request for it not to be opened and use an alternate screening method.

Be sure you know the rules. Then, print them out, and carry them with you. I’ve known mothers who have been hassled by TSA representatives who do not know the rules! 

Are you traveling by car?

If you are traveling by car, you can take whatever you want, or whatever you have room for.

What container should you use?

We could talk all day long about the pros and cons of glass, hard plastic bottles, or soft plastic bags. If you’re traveling with a healthy infant, any or all containers are just fine. 

I’m a proponent of glass bottles. However, they are heavy, and they can chip easily.

Plastic bottles would be fine, despite the big scare a few years ago about BPA in plastic baby bottles. Furthermore, plastic bottles made of polypropylene have a milky-cloudy appearance do not contain BPA. In fact, they never contained BPA.

Plastic bags, specifically made for human milk storage, stack well, and therefore work well when you are traveling with milk. A word of caution, however. They puncture easily.

Whatever you do, do not store milk with the nipple atop the bottle. Certainly, leakage through the nipple is an obvious drawback. But also, it creates an opening where bacteria and other germs can enter into the milk. And, in fact, the germs can and probably will be on the nipple where your baby’s mouth is. Not good.

What about other forms of storage?

Some mothers don’t have bottles because they have never fed the baby from a bottle. There’s no need to buy one when traveling with milk!

If you wish, you could put your milk into a clean jelly jar, or something similar. Just be sure it has a tight lid. If you have a healthy infant at home (not hospitalized) you may use any container that you deem to be “clean.” I always learned that if it’s clean enough for adult to drink out of, then it’s clean. For many of us, that would mean it came out of the dishwasher. 

Babies who are teething, may be fussy on the trip. For a short trip, have a milksickle on hand if possible. Otherwise, a cold teething ring, especially one that has a textured surface such as the Green Sprouts Cooling Teether, can be helpful even after it’s no longer cold. Even a cold washcloth can help.

How long will milk “keep”?

I’m fairly sure this question will keep scientists busy for the next decade or so. If you check 10 different sources, you’ll find 10 different answers. However, currently there is no study suggesting that milk “expires” if it is properly stored.

What about refrigeration or cooling?

First, remember that the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM) says that milk can stay at room temperature for several hours. I often think this is the best-kept secret on the planet! Everyone assumes that the milk must be immediately and continually chilled, but that’s just not true.

The ABM says that milk can be stored optimally for 4 hours, but it’s acceptable to store milk at room temperature for 6-8 hours under very clean conditions. (The ABM doesn’t define “optimally” but I presume that “optimal” means that minimal alterations in milk components occur.)

So when it comes to traveling with milk, if you are planning a short road trip, you might not even need to worry about keeping the milk cold. And, if you’re taking a longer trip and cannot keep the milk chilled for the entire trip, it might be just fine.

How can I keep the milk cold or frozen?

As you know, I have taught my courses all over the country, and that means I’ve transported plenty of food. Here are some recommendations.

  • Cooler: There are all makes and models out there. Hard side, soft side, small or large, shoulder strap, on wheels, you name it, they sell it! A member of my staff raves about the RTIC Soft Pack. It comes in a variety of sizes to fit any trip length.
  • Ice packs: I can’t count how many of these I’ve used in the past. My favorite is the Comfort Gel Pack. Because it’s so large, it keeps more items colder for longer period of time. And, it’s flexible. Cooler Shock packs are also frequently used by nursing moms.
  • Portable refrigerator: If you travel often by car, a portable refrigerator might be an option. I’ve heard of lots of military moms using these to move across country, as well as working moms who spend the day in their cars. This one has come highly recommended. Bonus is that you can have snacks and lunches kept cold without a cooler, too!

Avoid regular ice when traveling with milk. Science has shown that when the ice cubes begin to melt, it does not keep the milk as cold.

I won’t say I’ve read all of the studies about milk storage that have been published since 1979, but I’m very sure I’ve read nearly all of them! Sometimes, I’ve read a study multiple times. All of the studies are small, and hence the conclusions aren’t as strong as we’d like them to be. But if you have a question, let me know! I get fired up about this topic!

Be sure to listen to my recent podcast about traveling with breastfed babies!

What questions do you have about traveling with milk? What tips and tricks do you have? I’d love to hear your own experiences, and please share with a friend!

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