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.”
Fine. But what they couldn’t answer was this: Are TSA agents given authority to make decisions and judgment calls based on the situation? If so, why did the agent and his supervisor both shrug and tell me, “Sorry, it’s not our decision. These are the rules.”
If TSA agents are expected to follow the law to the letter, why, in in 2 years of traveling with a child, had I never been asked to do this before?
“TSA will always incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport,” responded Ross Feinstein, press secretary for the TSA.
Really? Because it’s that lack of consistency that makes the TSA experience so frustrating.
Melissa C. from Simi Valley, California, had similar questions. She, too, was surprised when she was asked to open her pouches of baby food at Burbank International Airport. When she refused, the she was told that “someone” would have to get an enhanced security screening.
“That was the oddest thing, the fact that I didn’t have to be searched but my husband did,” she says. “They went through all of his stuff and searched him in a special area. I didn’t have to do any of those things.”
Now here’s a secret about traveling moms: We have only one goal and that is to get from point A to point B without our kid freaking the eff out.
I know how to get from home to airport in 20 minutes flat; which items should be checked versus carry-on, below the seat versus the overhead bin; I even know how to simultaneously put on shoes, repack a laptop, and carry a toddler after getting through security.
What I don’t know is when I’m going to be singled out or held up by a TSA agent.
Tawanna Browne Smith, founder of MomsGuidetoTravel.com, recalls the time she declared a bottle of breast milk at security.
“They opened the bottle and tested the milk,” she says. “I didn’t see them change those gloves. When your child is that young, you’re extra careful about germs, and I didn’t want to give that milk to my child.”
She points out her sterile containers of breast milk had never been tested before, and haven’t been since. “It’s not consistent, so you’re dealing with individual agents. I don’t know what type of sensitivity training they go through,” she says.
Apparently, the TSA has a long way to go on that front, based on the experience of Charlene DeLoach, a Boston-based blogger who writes about parenting on her blog Charlene Chronicles.
While 7 months pregnant, the mother of two flew from Boston to Miami. Both times, she opted out of the full-body scanner upon her OB’s advice, and asked for an enhanced pat down.
At Logan International Airport, she was told by to step aside and wait for a female agent. A friend collected her belongings, including a laptop, which had already gone through the belt. And so she waited…and waited…and waited.
“After 5 minutes I was asked if someone was coming. The agent just glanced away. After 10 minutes, I asked again. I was told they’re busy. After 15 minutes, I asked for a chair. He said no, he couldn’t provide that”
Seeing her distress, other passengers tried to intervene on her behalf. “The agent wouldn’t respond to anyone. Finally, after 20 minutes, I started yelling that I’m 7 months pregnant, I’m going to miss my flight, and I’ll call the media if I have to. Then someone came over to pat me down.”
On the way back, DeLoach again opted out of the full-body scan. “The agent said to me, ‘I don’t understand why you need a pat down. The machine is perfectly safe.” There, she was left waiting for a full 30 minutes before an agent was available to search her.
“At least this time, they gave me a chair,” she says.
At first glance, the situations seem innocuous enough. After all, who doesn’t have to deal with long waits and hassles at the airport?
And yet, DeLoach was so shaken by the experience that she’s still loathe to even talk it. “I can’t even begin to tell you the complete lack of empathy, the complete disregard,” she says. “Standing there pregnant, crying because I was panicking that I would miss my flight, it was the total embarrassment. If their goal was to make me feel utterly berated, then they succeeded.”
Here’s the message to the TSA and anyone else involved in the travel process. We’re not asking for special treatment because we’re parents or parents-to-be. But we do want make it clear that traveling with an infant or small child is a stomach-knotting process—we are constantly anticipating the next challenges and warding off meltdowns from where there is no return. Knowing how to plan, prepare and respond to any situation in the travel process means we’ve won half the battle.
All we’re asking for is a consistent policy put in writing that we know we can rely on and follow. It also wouldn’t hurt for compassion, respect and common sense from the people who are tasked with protecting us and our children.
For more policies and missteps of the TSA don’t miss:
- The Worst Incidents of Theft at Security
- TSA Gone Wild: GAO Reports Lax Security and Misconduct
- TSA Pre-Check Expansion & All US Airports Offering Pre-Check
- TSA to Allow Golf Clubs & Small Knives
By Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com