Survive your time away: 4 tips for breastfeeding moms while traveling internationally

Varshna (right), a breastfeeding counselor, talks to a woman in a nutrition rehabilitation clinic in Madhya Pradesh, India about the importance of breastfeeding to combat malnutrition in newborns. Photo by: Russell Watkins / Department for International Development / CC BY

If there is one chief champion for breastfeeding, it’s the global development community. The benefits of breastfeeding can be linked to all 8 Millennium Development Goals and is integrated into a wide range of development programs from nutrition and child survival to education and disease prevention. As we start the 500 day countdown to the MDGs, this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7, aims to advocate for the protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding as a key to fighting poverty and promoting healthy, sustainable development.

As global development workers, we understand the importance of breastfeeding to both mother and child. In fact, many development professionals work on this very issue. Yet, when it comes time to have our own families, incorporating breastfeeding into our hectic work schedules — which often include frequent international travel — can be easier said than done.

As a mother of two young girls whom I breastfed, I know firsthand just how challenging it can be. Family leave laws in the United States, where I reside, provide a relatively short amount of time off to care for an infant, meaning most new mothers are heading back to the office well before the recommended breastfeeding period of one year is reached.

Talk to a group of nursing moms who work out of the home and you will likely hear stories of woe, sometimes comically so, about the time they had to pump in a storage closet, nursing pads that didn’t hold up during an important meeting, or weirding out their co-workers with little white bags of milk in the communal fridge. Even with supportive and accommodating employers like my own, scheduling pumping into an already packed and often sleep-deprived day takes amazing coordination and logistical skills. Throw in some long overseas trips, and it’s enough to make even the most devout breastfeeders start reconsidering their choice.

It was the international travel that almost did me in. To prepare for my first trip, I scoured the internet for tips and was surprised at the lack of resources available for nursing moms who had to go overseas and leave their little ones behind. I felt like I was the only one out there facing this challenge. Yet, when I started talking to other global development moms it became clear I wasn’t alone. So for any nursing or soon to be nursing moms out there, here are several tips for surviving international travel while breastfeeding.

1. Bring the right equipment

The single best piece of advice I received was the recommendation to rent a hospital grade pump with a rechargeable battery pack. Not only was the pump quieter and more efficient, I didn’t have to worry about finding an outlet when it came time to pump. Be sure to bring a range of adapters — not only for the country where you will be traveling, but also the countries you will be transiting through — so you can charge up when you find that lucky outlet.

The other key piece of equipment to bring is a manual hand pump. Batteries die, power outages are common in many countries and sometimes you can’t discretely carry a large electronic pump in your purse. Even if you never use it, bringing a hand pump as back-up will give you the peace of mind in case all other technology fails.

I also recommend a pack of disposable sanitation wipes for when you need to clean your pump in airplane bathrooms, airports or when traveling in places with no potable water.

2. Plan ahead

Traveling while maintaining a rigorous pumping schedule takes a lot of advance planning.

Research the laws in the various countries you will be traveling through. Make sure they will allow you to carry on your breastpump or be prepared with any additional documentation that may be required to clear airport security.

Many countries will not allow the transit of breast milk, so if you plan to save yours, make sure you won’t be forced to throw it out. Keeping milk in cold storage during long overseas flights can be very difficult to almost impossible, so be prepared to pump and dump, leaving enough milk behind to get your child through the trip.

If you are visiting your organization’s local office, reach out to the HR manager in advance to confirm what rooms, if any, can be made available for pumping while you are there. If you are attending a conference, contact the organizers to ask the same. If rooms are not available, booking a hotel as close as possible to where you will be working will make it much easier to duck out and pump in your room when necessary.

The flight overseas will be the most challenging to plan out. Aligning your pumping schedule with layovers and finding a place to pump while on the plane can require a bit of a dance. Consider paying for a lounge if you don’t already have access or use this link to see if the airport has a nursing lounge you can use.

When you board the plane, find the friendliest looking flight attendant and give them a heads up you will need to pump on the flight. I’ve had attendants help relocate me to a seat where no other passengers were nearby so I could pump in privacy at my seat (with a blanket!) They can also help deflect any ire from fellow travelers when you need to take over a bathroom for 20 minutes to pump. You may also want to consider booking an aisle seat so it can be easier to get up and down to pump without waking up a seat mate.

3. Be scheduled, but flexible

Strictly sticking to your pumping schedule will help ensure you maintain a good milk supply. Set reminders on your phone based on the new time zone so you don’t forget, especially if you will be juggling a busy schedule where it will be easy to get lost in your work. Block off times on your calendar so no one schedules a meeting that will conflict. Use apps like pump@work and Milk Maids to track your pumping and monitor your supply.

However, be flexible where you pump. If you are driving out to a field site, this may mean fitting in a session while in the back of a jeep (cue the recommended hand pump). With time changes, maintaining your schedule can sometimes mean waking up at odd hours. But if you are a nursing mom, chances are you can survive with little sleep anyway.

4. Patience and a sense of humor

Finally, approach your adventures in traveling while breastfeeding with some patience and a little bit of humor. It can be easy to get frustrated and consider giving it up altogether. If the stress is getting to be too much, I’m all for moms weighing the pros and cons of nursing against their own well-being and sanity. In some cases, discontinuing breastfeeding may be the right decision for you and your family. But the short term challenges are often outweighed by the benefits. The experiences that almost brought you to tears in the moment may later be some of your funniest memories of early parenthood.

For example, the time I was stopped at airport security in Dubai by a group of security officers who didn’t know what my breastpump was. The device, an admittedly suspicious looking piece of equipment to a breastfeeding novice, caused all kinds of alarm. The language barrier added to the confusion. Running late to my connecting flight I was desperate to explain that it was not “for scuba” as was their most recent line of questioning. In a panic, I resorted to acting out how to use a breastpump to the all-male audience. After turning beet red and stumbling over themselves, they immediately zipped up my bag and sent me on my way. The challenges of traveling while breastfeeding were immense, but the chuckle I get out of that one memory is far more memorable than all of the low points.

Have you been a breastfeeding mom who had to travel overseas? What are your survival tips? Please share your advice- and stories- in the comments section below.

If you have a questions about managing your career in global development, please tweet me @DevexCareers. Check out more career advice stories online, and subscribe to Doing Good to receive top international development career and recruitment news.

About the author

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    Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.