Breastfeeding

Nursing mom fights for her right to pump on a plane

Elizabeth Arnold was crying and shaking after arguing for hours with a flight crew over access to an electrical socket needed to operate her breast pump.

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Photo: iStock

Modern air travel is a headache for almost everyone. But when you have a new baby, you have to add a lot more to your mental checklist: balancing the baby’s nursing and nap schedules, trying to decipher the rules about liquids and bottles, and worrying about mid-flight meltdowns (not to mention the cumulative sleep deprivation, and the fact that you’re lugging a lot more stuff). We’ve all heard the horror stories of women who are ordered to dump bags of their pumped milk at security, even though they’re simply trying to feed their infants.

But what about being told you are not allowed to use your breast pump on the plane? Elizabeth Arnold, a Toronto mother of two travelling without her young children, recently found herself crying, shaking and overwhelmed after arguing for hours with a flight crew over access to an electrical socket needed to operate her breast pump.

Arnold, who is nursing both her one-year-old and almost-two-year-old, was tagging along on her husband’s business trip to London when she was repeatedly told she could not use a plug to operate her breast pump due to the airline’s safety protocol. While the crew eventually relented, they first told Arnold to try manually expressing her milk. When that didn’t work, they arranged for her to switch seats temporarily for a paltry “seven minutes” with the plug. She says more needs to be done to protect women’s rights when it comes to breastfeeding (or pumping) in the air.

“We shouldn’t be telling women how to pump, where to pump, how to breastfeed, where to breastfeed,” says Arnold, a 27-year-old teacher. “We should have the choice to figure out what works best for us and be able to do that wherever we need to do that. I was put in a situation where I had to fight for my rights.”

While Air Transat has not apologized to Arnold, a spokeswoman for the airline said the company is “sad” about the situation she was in.

“We don’t want to make it more difficult for women to breastfeed or pump,” says Debbie Cabana, Air Transat’s director of marketing and public affairs. “We are a very family-friendly and family-oriented airline.” She pointed out that the company’s website states all medical devices brought onboard must be battery operated; while there are occasionally electrical outlets built into the company’s planes, the operating policy for the Airbus A330 that Arnold was aboard does not allow use of the plugs for anything other than a smartphone, tablet or laptop device.

The intent of the policy isn’t to be discriminatory, Cabana says, but to ensure there isn’t a voltage problem that creates an electrical issue (like a short-circuit or a fire).

“To be clear, this is a safety issue. The airline is not trying to make it more difficult for women to pump on board,” Cabana says, adding that the reason the airline doesn’t publish policy on breastfeeding specifically is because they are “open” to facilitating it on all flights, including moving women to seats that offer more space or privacy if needed.

Arnold says she didn’t consider getting a manual pump because they tend to be difficult and inefficient; the second-hand electrical pump she owns has batteries, but they no longer recharge. She also made sure to pump right before boarding her eight-hour flight, hoping to buy herself time. Spending money on a new pump for the trip didn’t seem necessary until she was on the plane, out of options and worried about coming down with mastitis.

Arnold wonders how many other moms have suffered the same panic-inducing (and often painful) predicament. If you’ve ever breastfed or expressed milk for bottles, you know that nursing isn’t just about feeding your baby when it’s convenient to your work schedule or your travel plans. That’s not how lactation works. Your body has a rhythm and a milk production cycle of its own, often every couple of hours, whether or not you’re with your baby at the time. (Engorgement and mastitis from missing a feeding or skipping a pumping session can become a serious health concern.) It’s also important to pump or nurse at regular intervals to maintain your milk supply. Women shouldn’t be made to feel embarrassed, or like we’re somehow being too demanding, for needing to take care of a basic bodily function, explains Arnold. It’s also pretty demoralizing for a flight crew to dictate what method we are allowed to use (and when) for relieving pressure and expressing our milk.

“This is a women’s rights issue,” she says. “There must be other mothers who have flown and have needed to pump. I hope that change comes from this and [the airlines] realize we need new ways of protecting people and making sure there are safe spaces for nursing moms to do whatever they need to do to continue their nursing journey.”

Travelling while breastfeeding is not easy. Have you ever had to pump on a plane, or somewhere that felt less-than-private?

Read more:
How to use a breast pump
5 tips for breastfeeding in public with complete confidence
How to prevent and treat mastitis