Practical Tips for Nursing and Pumping on an Airplane

In Seattle, where I live, Breasfeeding in public is common, and I quickly became comfortable nursing whenever I needed to. On an airplane, however, things are different. You are inches away from someone you've never met, and that person might be any age, gender, or from a culture with different views on breastfeeding. . . and of course you're stuck next to eachother for hours. It's understandable that many moms are anxious about nursing (or pumping) on an airplane, and I want to share my best tricks and tips for making it as easy as possible.

Stay Well Hydrated
My first and most important tip is to stay well hydrated. Flying is dehydrating, especially if you are pumping or nursing. Also, your baby will probably nurse a little more than usual when you are flying. That means that you need to drink enough to offset both the air travel and the extra nursing. Dehydration can not only make jetlag worse, but it can also make you sick. Carry on plenty of water and don't be shy about asking the flight attendant for extra (though they can sometimes be reluctant to give too much to one person)

Where to Sit
Most airlines let you select your seat online when you book or pre-board selected passengers. Try to get a row just for you and your family.

Whether you are nursing or pumping, the best seat is next to a window. You'll have the most privacy, and distractions for the baby are minimized.

The last 5-10 rows of the plane aren't very private because people wait in line for the bathroom there, and there is always a lot of activity around the galley. Still, the further back you sit, the more likely you are to have an empty seat next to you. I prefer to sit about 2/3 of the way back to balance both considerations.

What To Wear
Wear comfortable, loose fitting clothing. For travel, I like the Blue Canoe Jane Bras. They're not supportive enough for elegant evening wear, but they're comfortable and provide easy access for baby or a pump with no clips to fasten and unfasten.

Nursing On An Airplane
The two main considerations for nursing on an airplane are maximizing privacy for yourself and minimizing distractions for baby. You are also "living" in close quarters with the people around you, and will want to minimize their discomfort as well.

  • I always let the person I'm seated next to know that I'll be nursing so that they have time to move if they feel uncomfortable. Nobody has ever complained, but I think the extra time to get used to the idea was a good idea for a few people. Sure, you have a legal right to nurse, but you also have a moral obligation to be considerate to others.
  • Skip the Boppy. A nursing pillow is tough to lug around and won't fit well in a coach sized seat. Use an airplane pillow to support baby once you are on board (you can wrap it in your own blanket if you are worried about germs)
  • Try to wait to nurse until the plane is taking off as nursing will help baby clear his or her ears. Takeoff is also a calm time on the airplane, and with any luck baby will drift off to sleep while nursing.
  • If baby is sleeping, he or she probably will not need help clearing his or her ears. There is no need to wake a sleeping baby to nurse during takeoff or landing.
  • I prefer to be covered while nursing, and I think it minimizes distractions for baby and keeps her warmer. I use a nursing coverup with a neck strap because it can be hard to keep readjusting a blanket in such close quarters. My favorite is the Hooter Hider. It folds and washes well, the fabric is pretty, and D can't pull it off.
  • A stuffy nose can make it difficult for baby to nurse, and cabin air pressure can make the stuffiness worse. A few drops of saline solution or breastmilk in her nose will help. You can buy a premade saline solution or bring your own along with a small plastic feeding syringe. Be gentle, even three or four drops can work wonders.
  • Some things to remember: You can't control what someone else might think or say, but it is up to you whether you let someone's comment or facial expression ruin your day.
  • Pumping on an Airplane
    It's even more difficult to pump on an airplane than it is to nurse, but sometimes (for example on a very long flight) it is necessary. Here are my tips to pumping in flight easier

    • If you plan to pump in the bathroom, try to do it early in the flight, during meal service, or during the movie when the lines for the bathroom are shortest (and tying one up for 20 minutes will be the least disruptive). Bring along everything you need, and remember that you should never wash bottles or pumping accessories with airplane water because it is unsafe for babies
    • If you plan to pump in your seat, the best times are during takeoff (after they've announced that it's ok to turn on electronic devices) while meal carts fill the aisles, and during the movie because passengers move around least during these times.
    • Make sure you are familiar with how to use your pump before you fly. You don't want to be fussing with cords in your snug airplane seat.
    • Pump hands free. The Hands Free Pumping Bustier is probably the single best product I had for pumping (besides the pump itself). It is a breeze to slip on over a nursing bra, and you can hook the pumps up without needing to see what you are doing. Best of all, your hands are free to help baby, use a laptop, or read a book once you are set up.
    • Cover up with a baby blanket or jacket. There's no need to bring a special coverup for pumping on a plane as long as you have something along that is big enough to give you privacy.
    • You can ask a flight attendant whether they have a place to store your milk and keep it cold. Often they are able to help on longer flights. Make sure your milk is well labeled and watch where it is stored (both to make sure it doesn't get lost or isn't put in the wrong place.) I once handed my milk to a flight attendant, she placed it on the counter, and another flight attendant (not knowing it was to be kept cold) warmed it and brought it back to me. The flight had no ice, and my son wasn't hungry for another hour or two, so I ended up throwing away that hard won milk.

    Do you have favorite tips or personal stories about nursing on an airplane that you'd like to share? Let us know in the comments.

    Related Links:
    Finding A Quiet Place to Nurse or Pump in the Airport
    Pumping and Nursing in the Airport
    DeliciousBaby: Anxiety about Nursing on a Plane
    Flying With Babies

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    1. Nikki T-S on May 31, 2009 at 5:50 p.m.

      I travel for work several times a month. And my daughter, 9 months, is my constant companion. I've found that wearing a nursing tank top with a jacket or sweater over it provides accessibility and discretion for airplane feedings. I also use a nursing cover.

    2. Amy on June 14, 2011 at 9:37 a.m.

      I think this is a great article. As a mom pregnant with my 6th, I've found it necessary to nurse on a plane. I thankfully haven't needed to pump on a plane. It's amazing what can be done discreetly! I wear my Modest Middles undershirt to help me nurse with the privacy I want. Most times people around me don't even know that I'm feeding the baby.

    3. mary lease on March 12, 2012 at 11:29 a.m.

      Thank you so much for these tips. I am going to Europe with my 5 month old all by myself and I am very nervous about the trip. I appreciate your advise, and will definatly use all your tips.

    4. Florencia on March 23, 2012 at 9:37 p.m.

      This will be my first time and I'm definitely wearing my modest middle top aswell :) but I wish my daughter will leave the cover alone. She always wants to pull it and get out from under it. She's 13 months

    5. Emmi on November 24, 2012 at 8:28 p.m.

      I am flying to Georgia from California for Christmas and I'm a bit worried bc my then 2 month old can't nurse. I've been exclusively pumping but don't have much practice in public areas (just 3 times in the car, awkward enough). Since I'm large breasted to begin with, the bottles and valves stick out super far and putting lanolin on (necessary for my super sensitive nipples) requires exposing myself. I don't really want to confine myself to the plane's tiny bathrooms (or take one up for 30 min or so). However, since the bottles stick out so far, it's super awkward even with a cover. Any tips? Is there a lower profile pump or flange? Thanks so much in advance for any help!

    6. Debbie on November 25, 2012 at 7:30 a.m.

      Emmi, you might try pumping just before you get on the flight and again just after landing. You might be uncomfortable by the time you land, but you'll avoid needing to pump on the plane.