Monday, February 28, 2011

Weekend Air Travel

I was tired before I went to visit my sister-in-law, Heather, for the weekend but now, I'm exhausted. I got several funny looks this morning from neighboring passengers as I slogged through the airport with my sunglasses on. I even wore my sunglasses in the underground tunnels. Getting up at two in the morning to catch a flight after being up early and out late the night before does not agree with me. And the one hour time change completely kicked my butt. But I had fun, got a break from the kids, and got to visit Boston for the first time.

For those of you who may attempt to fly while nursing at some point in your life, take note.

The morning we left for the airport, I had to wake Iain up to eat and get into the car. In hindsight, I should have pumped while he slept and gotten a bottle ready to feed him on the way. Instead, I tried to encourage him to eat and when he didn't, I gave up and said, "I'll just nurse him before I go into the airport." That might have worked had we not been confused about Continental being bought by United, and what terminal I was supposed to be at, and the security folks moving the cars along in the departure drop-off area, and me just completely forgetting that I hadn't depleted the milk supply in my chest yet. Despite the recommendation of several friends to check my luggage, I followed my gut instinct and carried it on.
At bigger airports like O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, chances of being stopped and searched for your breastpump are more rare. They let me right through with not even a second glance. (The woman next to me bringing Greek yogurt with her wasn't so lucky.) I remembered to chug my bottle of water right before going through the TSA line, and then forgot to take off my shoes. Luckily, the guy in line behind me let them pass through the x-ray machine in the bin with his laptop. The whole process made me really nervous.

Being that I was boarding a small plane that didn't have much storage space and I really didn't want to lift anything overhead for fear of injuring the herniated discs in my neck, I checked my bag at the gate. Things went well on the flight until we had about twenty minutes to go. The captain turned on the "fasten seatbelts" sign as I realized I had to go to the bathroom thereby foiling my plan and forcing me to hold it. Then, about five minutes later, I also realized that my chest was starting to hurt from the buildup of un-pumped breastmilk. It dawned on me that my right breast had gone sixteen hours without being drained. Youch. Not good. Somehow, I survived the twenty minutes until we landed, and didn't bulldoze the twelve rows of passengers in front of me as they removed their bags from the overhead bins. As I stepped off the plane I was given two gifts from the gods; my bag was there waiting for me and the bathroom was right next to my gate.

Peeing was my first priority and was easy to take care of. Pumping was going to be another issue. The handicapped priority restroom was being cleaned and the main women's restroom didn't have an outlet within reach of the bathroom stalls. I had read a suggestion somewhere to bring along an extension cord but didn't pack one. And I wasn't sure how long it would be before I reached my next destination so I figured pumping now would be the best option. Not wanting to set up a public pumping session in the main women's restroom, I went out to ask the janitor if the airport had a nursing room or other space where I could pump. She suggested the handicapped priority restroom she had just finished cleaning and I set up shop.

I learned a few things while in that airport bathroom...
  • Don't set things in the automatic sinks as if they were a countertop. They will turn on whenever they want to and you're stuff will get wet. (In my case, it was my makeup in a Ziplock baggie so I was okay.)
  • Bring along a small hand towel or two. Not every bathroom will have paper towels and you'll need something to dry off yourself and your pump supplies after you rinse them.
  • If you are carrying on your luggage, use the handicap stalls whenever possible. The extra space is great for storing your bag.
  • If there is any chance that you might, maybe, possibly need to pump even the slightest bit before, after or during your flight, carry-on your pump. The stress of worrying if it will be lost in your luggage or stuck on the plan during a delay isn't worth the convenience of not having to carry it.
Twenty minutes later, I was feeling much better and on my way to meet Heather outside the security entrance for our weekend adventure to begin. Since Iain was eight-months old, I was able to get by with only pumping twice a day. I was disappointed with how little I actually extracted, but thankful that I didn't have to carry a lot of milk back with me.

On the way back home through the much smaller Bradley Airport in Hartford, Connecticut, they did a much more thorough search. As I loaded my luggage on the belt, I explained that I had a breastpump in my suitcase, and breast milk with frozen gel packs in the cooler. I was a bit surprised when they pulled me aside to search my entire suitcase, cooler and pump. The TSA employees were very professional and explained that they would be taking my cooler of milk away for a minute to test it but that the test would check the air around it, not the liquids inside. I was sure they would make me toss out the gel-filled ice packs but they said those were okay. I had extra Ziplock baggies and was ready to ask a vendor on the gate side of the security line to fill them with ice for the rest of my trip if that was needed. After a thorough search of my suitcase (during which I noticed the chocolates I had purchased for Rick and Ada had melted into a blob since I left the packed suitcase near the wood stove overnight) they removed the breastpump and took it away for testing as well. Then the TSA gentleman returned, repacked my luggage and set me on my way.

I'm pretty sure I have a bit of anxiety when it comes to dealing with authority because the entire process made me very nervous. When they were done, I wanted to sit down and cry. It wasn't that I felt violated or anything like that. The experience just made me very emotional. Blame hormones. Blame exhaustion. Maybe it is just the seriousness of flying these days and the fact that we need such a long list of rules to follow for the TSA. Anyway you slice it, it was stressful.

On the way home, I wasn't worried about needing my pump so I again checked my bag at the gate. I didn't realize that I'd then have to retrieve it from the baggage claim since this was a bigger plane and they only did gate pickup for United Express service. Either way, I was home. I took a train to a bus and then walked three blocks back into reality, complete with hugs from Ada and a napping Iain.

Moral of the story: Traveling while nursing isn't always easy, but it doesn't have to be impossible. Plan ahead, ask friends for suggestions and try not to stress out about it.

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