This week, Alyssa Milano took to Twitter to lambast Heathrow Airport for confiscating her expressed breast milk. Meanwhile, in small town Maine, I jumped for joy at finally having these policies and their ramifications brought to light by someone with a big enough voice to make a difference. Having traveled between Logan Airport and Heathrow Airport extensively with my children, I know from personal experience how Heathrow treats pregnant or nursing mothers.
When traveling through Boston’s Logan airport, I could not have asked for more courteous staff. I flew to London while in my second trimester, and was encouraged to use the fast lanes so that I wouldn’t be on my feet so long, I was even brought to the front for boarding, though I didn’t have children with me yet and had no first class ticket. Simple gestures that made a 17 hour journey so much more comfortable. When traveling through Logan with infants or toddlers, even when witnessing families traveling with older children, I saw the same impeccable service. Families are directed by members of staff to shorter lines, sometimes even skipped ahead if a child is in distress. Before we get into the idea of this being a privilege, and parents shouldn’t expect such behavior, let me ask you this: People traveling without children, would you rather be stuck in line with kids screaming, or would you rather kids get pushed through lines and settle down quietly to wait for their plane? I remember pre-child travel, I know how I would answer this question. Boston is a pregnant or nursing mother’s dream. Staff are helpful, sensitive and there are even rocking chairs.
Traveling through Heathrow as a pregnant or nursing mother, is like moving through one of the inner circles of Hell. Now it’s a big airport, so I don’t begrudge the distances you have to walk to reach your gate, or the small amount of time they give you before announcing the gate number, and expecting you to be there. I get it, Heathrow is enormous, those things cannot be changed. But laws and regulations can, and the regulations currently in place for nursing mothers traveling through Heathrow are appalling.
Alyssa Milano was traveling without her baby, and so using a breast pump to pump milk. For the uninitiated, you can’t just let that stuff sit in you for the length of a trans-atlantic flight, the body doesn’t work like that. While going through security, her expressed milk was confiscated. Her shampoo was not. They said that if the child had been with her she would have been able to keep the milk, she countered that if the child were with her, she wouldn’t have to use the breast pump.
Well, I’m here to tell you Alyssa, even if your child had been with you, Heathrow regulations still don’t look on nursing mothers with fondness. I traveled with my first son when he was nine months old. For reasons beyond our control, I wasn’t able to nurse so I had committed to exclusively pumping for the first year of his life. I carried my Medela around with me like most people carry a cell phone. Every three hours for twenty minutes I hooked myself up and thereby was able to sustain my son.
It’s a three hour journey from my parents house to Heathrow airport, we stopped on the way for a bite to eat, and so that I could pump. I was a bit of a milking machine, and Toby was a bottle fed breast feeder so we arrived at the airport well stocked with my milk. In a cool bag, with ice packs. Ice packs that had been purchased in America and had already made the trans-Atlantic flight over and landed in Heathrow. And here my adventure begins.
We get to security, where my biggest concern is if they will let the pump through, even though I had checked and knew it was acceptable. Their first concern was the sealed jar of baby food. They made me break the seal and taste it. Quite frankly, I’m glad they did, we had never used store bought baby food before, but thought it best for the 17 hour journey ahead of us to use something a little more preserved. So I tried it, it was vile and we bought bananas from a cafe once past security. Their second concern was my breast milk. 4 ounces in each bottle, they wouldn’t let it past without me drinking some in front of them. Now I may have been using breast milk and making my own baby food, but drinking my own breast milk was not a frontier I felt the need to cross. But I did, slightly perturbed, and then came the biggest challenge: The ice packs.
These ice packs, as I have said, had already been through this airport once before. Logan airport security was fine with them coming through, and Heathrow had no need to check till my return journey. They insisted they would have to confiscate them. I insisted on talking to many people, and spending much time at security before I would un-willingly leave them behind.
Three hours to get to the airport. Three hours at the airport. Seven-and-a-half hours in the air. One hour through US customs in Boston. Two-and-a-half hours back to Maine. Seventeen hours of travel time—what did they expect me to do with breast milk that needs refrigerating? Three officers told me I could buy frozen ice packs once through security. This turned out to be completely un-true, Heathrow has a large shopping mall, but no-one sells ice packs, let alone ice packs that are already frozen. Back to security we went, they would still not return the ice packs but suggested we get ice from a coffee shop instead. Ice to fill our cool bag with water within the hour. We were told, by security, that once on board the plane we would be able to use inflight refrigeration. Good old US hospitality to the rescue, Starbucks graciously gave me some crushed ice to keep breast milk at a safe temperature.
Once aboard the plane, we discovered that airport security had once again misled us. By this point, it felt like they were doing this deliberately to get us to move on. We were informed that it was illegal to store passenger property in on-board refrigeration. Luckily, Virgin Atlantic has the nicest and most helpful staff of any airline I have ever flown with. By this time I was pretty distraught and rapidly making calculations in my head as to how much milk would need to be thrown away, and if I would be able to pump enough fresh to keep my son calm on the plane. The flight attendants immediately came up with a solution and they filled our cool bag with dry ice from their meal compartments, which would stay plenty cool through our remaining trip back to Maine.
I don’t think people traveling with children should get special treatment, though I think it’s in everyone’s best interests when screaming children aren’t kept in line. I don’t think moms with small children should be exempt from the rules. I think the staff at Heathrow follow the rules they are given. I do however think that in this case, the rules are wrong. Regulations on flying with expressed breast milk need to be changed, and I for one, am glad that Alyssa Milano is expressing herself so vocally.