Open bottles, confiscated food, toddler pat downs. The TSA can make travel so much harder for parents. One mom was forced to pump her breasts in a public restroom to prove her empty containers were for milk. Another mom missed her flight because she was held for 90 minutes as her milk was screened. Our Editorial Director Sarika Chawla has her own frustrations as well. And it all started with drinking breast milk.
The first time I traveled with my child, I had to drink my own breast milk.
It was a rude awakening to just how confusing airport security can be when traveling with a child. But I was determined to game the system. I did a lot of research to understand all the rules of getting baby-related liquids through security.
Mothers can be asked to taste-test breast milk in foreign airports such as Heathrow. In the U.S., there were a couple of notable cases when traveling mothers were asked to do the same, but that practice has since been abolished.
On paper, the TSA rules on bringing liquids for kids seem straightforward:
• Separate these items from the liquids, gels, and aerosols in your quart-size and zip-top bag.
• Let Officers at the security checkpoint know you have these items.
• Present these items for additional inspection once reaching the X-ray.
• You are encouraged to travel with only as much formula, breast milk, or juice in your carry-on needed to reach your destination.
But the application of these rules never seems to be consistent. On my most recent trip, flying from Pittsburgh International Airport, I declared all baby-related liquids and put them in a separate bin. The agent held up one of the four sealed pouches of baby food in the bin.
“These are over 3 ounces,” he said.
“Yes, it’s baby food. That’s why I separated them,” I replied.
He waved me over for additional screening. “You’re going to have to open these.”
“Is this like the time I had to drink my breast milk?” I asked.
“No, ma’am, You don’t have to taste these.”
I opened one pouch, which he swabbed and declared safe. “You have to open the rest,” he said.
I declined, explaining that once opened, the pouches of pureed food would have to be refrigerated and consumed within 24 hours–not possible on our cross-country flight.
He spoke with his supervisor, returned and said that if we didn’t want to open the food, all three of us would have to undergo an enhanced screening: me, my husband and our son.
I grumpily opened the food and then complained to the supervisor who said, “I understand your frustration but these are the rules” and handed me a photocopied customer service form..
After leaving the area, my husband turned to me and asked the million-dollar question:
“How would patting us down tell them what’s in the baby food?”
We came up with many more questions on the flight home:
- What if I had been carrying more than four pouches of food?
- What if our son was younger and that was his only source of nutrition?
- What if my husband hadn’t been with me to watch our son while I dealt with the TSA?
- How thorough is a toddler pat-down procedure? (There was something explosive in his diaper, but it had nothing to do with national security.)
I reached out the TSA with my questions, who forwarded more guidelines:
“Our Security Officers may test liquid exemptions (exempt items more than 3 ounces) items for explosives. Officers may also ask you to open the container during the screening process.” The guidelines also state, “If an individual refuses a particular screening technique, it is standard operating procedures that a more comprehensive screening of the person(s) and property will be conducted.”