Your Complete Guide to Breastfeeding on a Plane

Breastfeeding is the most natural and safest way to feed your baby, this is true for during air travel too. Breastfeeding while flying is great, as you have on-demand nutrition for your baby.

Most airlines have a policy- written or unwritten- which supports breastfeeding babies on flights, it is even advised during take off and landing.  However, as in any cramped space with lots of diverse people, there can be complications. Here are some tips to make breastfeeding on the plane much easier.

Know your rights about nursing on a flight

The first and foremost about breastfeeding on a plane is: it is totally acceptable and appropriate to breastfeed on a flight.  Your baby has a fundamental human right to be fed. [2]

No one has the right to request you to stop breastfeeding or cover up!

Unfortunately, sometimes crew or passengers may have skewed attitudes [1]. Please don’t allow twisted human logic and prudish attitudes deter you from feeding your child even in a cramped space of a plane.  (This attitude, sadly, stems from the sexualisation of female breasts, over the acceptance of their basic physiological, evolutionary function.)

In most European and North American countries the right to breastfeed is protected by law, these laws are applicable to the companies operating the flights too.   

On the other hand, you don’t want the stress that comes from confrontations, because it’s bad for your milk production and the stress will affect your baby who is tuned into your emotion. 

Keep Calm and Carry On! 😉

How to breastfeed on a plane?

Breastfeeding on a plane is just like breastfeeding in any other public space, albeit slightly more cramped.   In fact, breastfeeding is actually encouraged for the benefit of your baby during takeoff and landing. With a little advance preparation and planning, you will rock nursing on the flight!

Personally, I was never a confident breastfeeder- at home or in public-, but breastfed three children through short-haul and long-haul trips, saving me lots of headaches about packing food and bottle sterilisation. It comes down to practice and preparation. Here are…

8 tips for successful breastfeeding on plane

1) Seating – window or aisle?

Perhaps the most debated is where to sit on a plane – window or aisle seat?  There are pros and cons to both, though I, personally, prefer and recommend a window seat.

The Aisle Seat: the advantage of an aisle seat is you can get up easily, without disturbing any of your fellow passengers, walk to the toilet to change baby, walk with him to burp.

On the other hand, sitting on the aisle seat, while breastfeeding you (and your baby) will inevitably get knocked by passers-by. You have many more possible onlookers from rows behind you too. (Though most of these will be in awe of what you are doing!)

A Window Seat is much more preferable:

  •  you have better control of your environment,  as you can lower the window blinds (except for during takeoff and landing) to create a calmer environment with fewer distractions for your little one;
  • you are better shielded from nosy onlookers
  • the window wall will provide you with extra support to lean against
  • you have marginally more space to hang over your seat (without getting knocked).

2) Level with your fellow passengers 

This is quite important, especially if you are travelling on your own with a baby: Start a conversation with your fellow passengers as soon as you find your seat.  Then when I’m about to start feeding I often used to say:

I’m just about to start to feed the little one and he does get slightly excited at the prospect of food times and may kick, I’m sorry in advance if he kicks you.”  (Now truth be told, only one of my children was excited at breastfeeding the other two hated it, especially the letdown stage…but more on that later).

Once I started travelling with a toddler and a baby it became a lot easier as I didn’t have to worry about who was right next to me. We still chose the window and middle seat, though.

3) To cover up or not to cover up

Firstly, no one has the right to ask you to cover up, assuming you haven’t stripped half-naked and have both your boobs hanging out on the airplane or have your nipples flashing for minutes on end. (And no, even though the couple of seconds it takes for your baby feels like minutes… that doesn’t count!)

Beyond that, to cover up or not to cover up is really a personal preference: If you are used to feeding under a full cover in public and that gives you more confidence and your baby is okay with that, then go with it!

Again, personally, I could never do a full cover, anything like one of these huge breastfeeding covers, because I needed to see what my baby and I were doing. The eye contact, especially as my babies grew was important to be able to calm them. I found this especially true in the confined space of an aeroplane where you don’t have much wiggle room.

Humour me though: I would highly advise having a thin muslin tucked in under your bra strap, by its corner, on your shoulder.

  • Once you have manoeuvred your little one onto your breasts you can use this to gently pull over and provide extra privacy and bit of a calm environment;
  • a muslin is quite a light fabric, so it won’t create a hot steamy environment for your baby as she feeds;
  • it provides a great screen to stop distractions for slightly older babies who are curious about the goings-on in their environment;
  • babies, often, love to hold on to something while nursing- the muslin is a nice piece of cloth to hold onto and they are yanking at your clothes;
  • the milky smell that the muslin gets is actually a great comforter later during the flight;
  • And, my personal, main reasoning for the muslin cover is not to protect your modesty, but to protect you from a potentially embarrassing situation:  when a baby latches on and starts suckling that starts a natural letdown process where your milk starts flowing more freely. For some of us, this is more intense than others. I reckon, aircraft cabin pressure may also contribute to this being slightly more intense on a plane.  Just think of the pressure build-up in your water bottles on a flight!

    On one flight, probably due to the cramped space, I didn’t quite get the latch right first time round:  my baby came off my breast soon after she started suckling but only once my let-down was in full flow. This meant that not only was her face squirted with milk, but so was the seatback in front of me.  (This was my luxury breastfeeding problem, too much milk, but a reason why neither my babies nor I enjoyed breastfeeding, especially not out in public.)
  • The final advantage of a muslin is that you have to the cloth to hand, to mop up any spills or ready to burp the baby at the end of the feed.

4) Comfortable and convenient clothing

This brings us to clothing to help you with breastfeeding on a airplane: you’ve probably figured out the best nursing clothing for you by now. However, if you haven’t breastfed much in public so far- don’t fret, there are some really easy clothing tips will help you!

Firstly, you don’t need dedicated breastfeeding clothing (except for a breastfeeding bra) to breastfeed your baby in modesty!

A good breastfeeding bra with easy single-handed clip will be very handy.  Even if you are a slightly smaller breast size, that wouldn’t normally warrant a bra, it is useful to have a breastfeeding bra to place any breast pads in the to protect from any leakages. (Our bodies are weird in how they respond to even other people’s babies crying.)

Layers are your friend: A cami or strapless camisole underneath a slightly loose a t-shirt or jumper will help you ensure that you showed the least amount of skin. 
My preference was always a cami under a patterned t-shirt and a plain cardigan over the top. 

Patterns are also your friend: patterns tend to show fewer stains if you have a leak or the baby burps all over you.

TIP- Woollen T-shirt:  a little known fact about wool is that it’s has some natural odour suppressing and disinfecting properties. They are also great for helping your body thermal regulate. Thin woollen T-shirts have been my favourite tops.  

Dresses are complicated for nursing, unless a dress is a specific breastfeeding dress. It can be less than convenient to hike up in a small, cramped space. Perhaps the exception is a wrap dress: Still, layer it, so you can pull the neckline down and the cami up.

Overall, make sure you are comfortable: comfy clothes are important, even more so, when you are in a tight space with a baby attached to you for the whole duration of the flight. A shawl or a pouch sling will help take the weight of the baby too.

TIP:  Have a spare top or two for milky bumps and leaks.  Put these in an easily accessible place, possibly in a small grab bag with the rest of your baby changing paraphernalia.

5) Props- your breastfeeding kit 

In reality, you don’t need anything besides you and your baby for breastfeeding!  However, having a couple of extra bits can make your life a lot easier (pick and choose as you see appropriate) 

A pillow – tuck it under your arm or your baby’s head while breastfeeding to make the hold a little easier. 
You can ask the crew whether they have any pillows or blankets as you board the plane or you can use a regular travel (neck) pillow, you can fold up a coat or jumper or you could use- like I often did-  my little changing bag. (I popped a muslin over this to make it a little softer.)

A muslin (or two) – Couple of muslins don’t take up a lot of space, dry quickly but are infinitely practical, multipurpose. Have a couple of different colours and patterns, so you know which one you used for feeding and which one was a back up “picnic rug”

TIP: We’ve mentioned the practicality of a pouch sling in our article about baby carriers on board.

A bottle of sterile water- This may be slightly more controversial, but the disrupted routine may mess with your breastfeeding schedule and having a bottle of water ready, which you could offer your baby to buy you time could be very handy. Like when you are just finishing your meal.  (Of course don’t make the flight the first time you offer your baby either a bottle or some water.)

A breast pump- only if you regularly pump should you be concerned about taking a breast pump with you on your flight.  (There’s a bit more information in a later section for breastfeeding moms without travelling without their baby.)

6) Position yourself for comfort

Breastfeeding on a plane is like breastfeeding in anywhere just with slightly less space. 

TIP: You can always practice for breastfeeding in a plane, by breastfeeding in a parked car on the passenger or the back seat.

The best tip I ever received breastfeeding on a flight easier was to put one of our smaller pieces of hand luggage underneath my feet, so my knees came up a little higher.

Also, if the person in front of you has the seats recline fully, you may want to ask them to take that seat back a little bit. Do it politely though as they have a right to recline the seat. If you don’t feel confident doing this yourself then you can ask a member of the cabin crew to help you with this.

7) Timing breastfeeding 

Whether you are feeding on demand or feeding to a schedule make sure you keep track of your feed routine during the trip: with all the things happening it’s very easy to keep to lose track of time.

The aspects to be mindful of:

  • Delay or pull forward feeds for takeoff and landing;
  • Offer your baby the opportunity to breastfeed more frequently due to them getting more dehydrated on a plane;
  • stick with their original routine rather than going to the routine of your destination at this point.

8) Your health and comfort while breastfeeding

With the demands of a baby, possibly other children as well, it’s all too easy to forget about yourself!

Make sure you have a bottle of water easily within reach, in the seatback pocket, and some easy nutritious snacks such as nuts, (though avoid peanuts close confines of the aircraft), dried fruits, granola bar, energy bites, etc.

Drink–  drink a little and often. Seriously, don’t be put off by the prospect of having to go to the toilet because you’re drinking lots! Your kidneys will thank you.

Can you breastfeed during takeoff and landing?

Yes, you can breastfeed during takeoff and landing. In fact, both aviation and lactation experts and doctors recommend nursing your baby during take-off and landing. [3] This to help your baby with equalizing the middle ear pressure differences and ease any pain.

(We explain in detail about ear pain for little ones in our guide about flying with earaches. )

The logistics of breastfeeding, with seatbelts on, however, are not so straightforward: 

As a legal and safety requirement, all passengers on a plane need their own separate seat belt.  For lap infants, this means being buckled in with a special seat belt attachment that attaches to your seat belt, as stated by the FAA [4] and other safety agencies. (Sadly, infants can’t be in a baby sling during takeoff and landing).

In principle, the baby needs to be facing forwards, held in the parent’s arms. In practice, you twist the baby slightly across your front and you breastfeed them in that sideways position. 

Sleeping baby on a plane
This picture shows well, how you could position your baby during take off and landing to feed them, while strapped in.

Is there a feeding room on a flight? 

No airline has a dedicated feeding room onboard. However, some airlines have special bedrooms and much more private seating arrangements in upper classes. These are only open to passengers who booked those specifically. Some airlines have rules on travelling with infants in upper classes, because of the seat configurations and the practicalities in case of an emergency situation.

You can always opt for breastfeeding in the toilets, but I would NOT RECOMMEND this: most men (or even women) don’t sit down on the toilet. Pour any liquid from a height and it splashes, creating a mist of splash, which ends up quite high, settling all around … so we’ll leave you with that thought and sitting in that space and touching the walls. …Sorry! 

Toilet on aircraft
Toilets are tight, in high demand and may not be very hygienic

The crew may have a jump seat, which you may be able to use with a curtain pulled, but this is totally at their discretion.

Information for breastfeeding mums using a breastpump travelling with or without a baby

The great news is that breast pumps, baby bottles, pumped breastmilk and icepacks to keep them cool are allowed through security and on the plane.

Planning ahead for flying with a breastpump

What breast pump– Perhaps the most important question around planning ahead for any breastfeeding mum who uses a breast pump is whether your breast pump is manual, battery-run or needs a power outlet:  Don’t rely on having a power outlet to power your pump. Make sure your pump is fully charged and you have back up power source.

From personal experience, I can highly recommend the Medela Swing breast pump, which I used and was recommended to me by top UK lactation consultant, Lisa Mansour. (See this and other tried and tested products on our Resources Page *opens in new window)

Secondly, plan how you will store, transport and sterilise your pump, parts and bottles during your trip.

TIP from Kim, mum of 2 says: “ I took a small cooler and put the breastmilk in breastmilk bags. Also look into the Kiinde system for travel days. The cooler/pump are considered medical devices and don’t count as a carry-on. However, make sure you double-check with your airlines.”

Some airlines require 48-hour advance notification of medical equipment being taken on board.  American Airlines is one of these. Make sure to check, whether the airline you are flying with has any such requirements.

Going through security with a breast pump and breast milk 

From our research and experience, it’s best to be upfront at security and put your breast pump and milk out first. (Just like you’d take out your laptop and liquids.)

In the USA, expressed breastmilk is categorised as medicine, therefore is not subject to the usual liquid constraint rules applied by the security agencies.  The rule applied is “any reasonable quantity” is permissible. 

“Formula, breast milk and juice for infants or toddlers are permitted in reasonable quantities through the security checkpoint. Remove these items from your carry-on bag to be screened separately from the rest of your belongings.
Inform the TSA officer at the beginning of the screening process that you carry formula, breast milk and juice in excess of 3.4 ounces in your carry-on bag. These liquids are typically screened by X-ray.
 You do not need to travel with your child to bring breast milk.
Ice packs, freezer packs, frozen gel packs and other accessories required to cool formula, breast milk and juice are allowed in carry-on. If these accessories are partially frozen or slushy, they are subject to the same screening as described above.”

TSA site advice

In Europe, a 100ml limit DOES apply, if you are travelling without a baby. 

Your breastpump is categorised as a medical device and does not count towards your hand luggage allowance, (but be prepared to explain this a couple of times.)

For hygiene reasons you can ask the security officer to change gloves before he inspects your items.  (You may want to carry a few spares for this, in your changing bag.)

TIP: If you can and have the time, pump in a breastfeeding room or family changing facilities at the airport. This will save you dealing with more cramped conditions on the flight.

Breastfeeding room- Kerwin McKenzie
A breastfeeding and breastpumping pod at the airport

Where to pump on a plane

Just like breastfeeding you have 2 options depending on your preference: at your seat or in the toilet.

Pumping in your seat

The best bit, about pumping on a plane, is that the general hum of the engine will drown out all but the loudest breast pumps. 

A window seat is definitely the most convenient.
Have things at hand before you start.
Layering your clothes will also help you be discreet about pumping.
Get cosy and pump away. 

Pumping in the aircraft toilet

Besides the hygiene concerns raised about toilets, you may have some concerns about occupying a toilet for the length of time it takes to pump. Here are some good tips:

  • Wait for a while after the plane has taken off and seat belt sign is switched off. 
  • Let a member of the crew know that you need to pump and may be a while- this will also help if there is sudden turbulence and the pilot switches on the seatbelt signs.  
  • A good time to pump is during meal service.  If you let the cabin crew know, where you are sitting, they can leave your meal there for when you return.

For an inspirational story from a mum often working away from her breastfed baby, read Katy Watson’s account of Breastfeeding as a BBC correspondent

If you have any questions or further hints and tips, pop them in the comments below.

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References:
[1] Wolf, J.H. Got milk? Not in public!. Int Breastfeed J 3, 11 (2008) doi:10.1186/1746-4358-3-11
[2] According to the UN, the right to food and drink is a fundamental human right and that is exactly what you are providing for your baby- nourishment, as intended by evolution and nature. Convention on Rights of children, 1989. https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx
[3] Health Hazards for Passengers in Commercial Air Transport Vidović, Andrija; Bogović, Igor; Missoni, Eduard, Health Hazards for Passengers in Commercial Air Transport // Promet-Traffic-Traffico, 16 (2004), 1; 181-188
[4] FAA- https://www.faa.gov/travelers/fly_children/

Monika Roozen

Monika is a mum of 3, an avid traveller, who grew up travelling the world and has continued travelling ever since. She holds a degree in animal sciences, nutrition and business administration and has consulted for several years for the hospitality industry and customer service departments. Monika loves slow travel- taking time for immersive experiences in culture and nature- sailing and snowboarding. Her personal adventures are chronicled in Inspireroo Family Travel Magazine . (Click to see their family mad ventures)

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