The Tyranny of the TSA: Set Our Breast Pumps Free!

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By Jessica Shortall, Contributing Writer
Updated March 2, 2017
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Jessica Shortall is a working mom with a career dedicated to the intersection of business and doing good. As the former Director of Giving for TOMS Shoes, she literally circumnavigated the globe with a breast pump, and now she’s here to give you advice for dealing with the challenges of being a working and pumping mom. Order her new book from Abrams,  Work. Pump. Repeat.: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work, available now!

Every working, breastfeeding, traveling mama has a story: the TSA agent who dumped out her breast milk, or who insisted on sticking an unexplained “test strip” into her breast milk, so she ended up dumping it herself. The TSA agent who disassembled her entire pump, touching every part with gloves that had touched a thousand other travelers that day. And, of course, the TSA agent who made her cry.

The list is endless, because those agents have all the power. All they have to do is say the word, and you either miss your business trip or — worse — you miss getting home to your family. What’s clear from story after story is that TSA rules on breast milk and breast pumps are too vague, and therefore open to wide interpretation. Agents themselves are not consistently and proactively trained to treat breastfeeding mothers with anything bordering on respect for the fact that what they’re doing — and the equipment they’re carrying — is medical in nature.

This week I heard from Nicole, a working mom of a 10-month-old baby, who works in the health industry. On Tuesday, she was checking in at the Portland (PDX) airport when her breast pump triggered an alarm. She told me that while this doesn’t happen to her in other airports, it’s a frequent occurrence at PDX. Her impression is that “the screeners don’t seem to know what they are looking at.”

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Nicole was told she would need a full pat down by a female officer (even though her body scan did not trigger any alarms), and her bag would be fully searched. The agent instructed the other officers to “keep a visual on her at all times” (because, you know, forceful letdown can be lethal), while he disassembled the entire breast pump bag, pulling out parts, tubes, attachments, storage bags, and hands-free pumping bra. Nicole asked him to please be careful (every pumping mom knows that losing a part is equivalent to losing the whole pump, and keeping the parts clean is essential), but she says he didn’t even acknowledge her comment. The agent then stuffed everything back in the bag and lectured her about bringing a rechargeable battery through security. (Nicole says, “Newsflash: this feature is why I travel with it on airplanes.”) He also told Nicole that her “personal choices” were the reason for the search and pat down.

Bad, right? Well, hang on to your nursing bras, because it gets worse.

Once on the plane, Nicole went to pump, and realized that the agent had pulled apart several of the pump components. There were two parts that, because of what the agent did to them, Nicole simply could not get back together. She spent 20 minutes, in tears, trying to fix her pump, until she finally gave up and faced the reality of several hours of cross-country travel without a working breast pump.

Transportation Security Administration rules on traveling with a breast pump and/or breast milk are frustratingly vague. You can find them here, to see for yourself. (And if you’re flying with a pump, print that page out and bring it with you to wave around.) A lot is left to the imagination, such as “other types of screening” that might be required. What’s clear from Nicole’s experience is this:

  • Training is inconsisent
  • There is no mandate to treat breastfeeding mothers respectfully, or to treat their pumps and their milk as medical in nature
  • There is zero medical consideration for the engorgement, pain and loss of milk that will result from an agent tampering with a woman’s breast pump
  • As with other run-ins with the TSA, there is no real recourse when you’re treated like garbage; Nicole will be lucky if she gets an apology

All of this, clearly, is because the people writing the rules, and the people enforcing them, have never done this. They don’t know what engorgement is, they don’t understand milk supply, they have no concept of the precious milk stash that the working mother is trying to replenish with the milk she pumps while traveling. To them, this isn’t medical, it’s a “personal choice” that is an inconvenience to them.

That’s why I’m calling for the TSA to rewrite its policy — but not by a bunch of bureaucrats who have never leaked breast milk through their blouses, never pumped in an airplane bathroom, never been solely responsible for physically producing another human’s nutrition. The TSA needs a panel of women who have pumped and traveled with pumps and milk to help them write the new policy and new training materials. Anything less is going to continue to be anti-breastfeeding. I, for one, would be first in line to volunteer to help our dear old TSA figure this out, once and for all.

If you agree, I’ve got a petition for you. Please sign and share. And if you have a TSA nightmare — or a great experience! — share it in the comments.

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