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TSA said screening of breastfeeding mom did not meet ‘standards’

The agency apologized to the mother after her viral tweet on a screening in Los Angeles

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
6 min

A previous version of this article incorrectly said TSA updated guidance on its website regarding cooling devices for breast milk. The guidance has not been updated. Instead, it was clarified.

The Transportation Security Administration said Friday that a recent screening of a breastfeeding mother “did not meet our standards.”

The agency also said it apologized to Emily Calandrelli in the days after a viral tweet on her security screening at Los Angeles International Airport.

Calandrelli, host of “Emily’s Wonder Lab” on Netflix, was traveling Monday when a TSA agent flagged ice packs in her carry-on bag. Away from her 10-week-old son for the first time, the mother of two had packed a breast pump and two gel ice packs ahead of a two-day work trip, and was hoping to pump one last time before departing for a flight to D.C.

Because one was semi-frozen and the other was room temperature, the officer said they were in violation of its liquids rule. He told Calandrelli she’d have to toss the packs or check them in her luggage.

“I remember having this issue back with my first kid a couple of years back,” Calandrelli told The Washington Post. “But this was the very first time that they actually didn’t let me take it through.”

TSA has exemptions for its liquids rule for people traveling with breast milk, formula or accessories that help keep them cold. Partially frozen or slushy packs may be permitted, too, but could require additional screening, which conflicts with what Calandrelli says she was told.

The agency has a separate rule on “medically necessary gel ice packs,” which are allowed regardless of their frozen state. However, it was unclear whether accessories for breast milk were considered medically necessary and allowed in any state as well.

Calandrelli eventually agreed to check her ice packs and decided to risk the long wait and pump once she landed at Dulles International Airport.

“As I was leaving, the manager said, ‘And don’t try to sneak it through a second time because this will just happen again,’ ” Calandrelli said. “It was just not a fun way to be treated.”

TSA spokesperson R. Carter Langston said in an email Friday that the agency reviewed Calandrelli’s case on Tuesday and apologized to her Wednesday.

Someone left a heartfelt note in an airport breast-feeding pod. Now there are thousands like it across the country.

“The screening process she received unfortunately did not meet our standards,” Langston said. “We will continue to engage with advocacy and community-based organizations to enhance our screening protocols. Additionally we will re-double our training to ensure our screening procedures are being consistently applied.”

After the TSA incident, Calandrelli turned to Twitter to share her experience. After she’d checked her bag at the United Airlines counter, “I just ran to the bathroom and sat on a toilet and cried there for like 8 minutes,” she said. Then she started reading the replies to her posts. Hundreds of responses showed she wasn’t alone in her struggle as a nursing parent navigating confusing, and sometimes inconsistent, security rules. Calandrelli said it was validating to know she wasn’t alone.

You asked: Should I get my kid a frequent-flier account?

“We are all individually crying in the bathrooms by ourselves, not realizing that so many of us are having this shared experience,” Calandrelli said.

Jordan Benston, CEO of the production company Oracle Media and a mother of two, was one of the people who tweeted her support for Calandrelli.

“The last time I traveled with a bag of breast milk I knew it was going to be fine, I had done it before,” Benston said to The Washington Post. “But the guy that was working TSA goes, ‘Wait a minute, let me make sure you can even take this with you.’ ”

Benston says the agent brought over a female supervisor who let her bring the unfrozen milk through. She said it’s been harder when she’s packed milk that wasn’t completely frozen. “They literally open every single bag of your breast milk to test it to make sure that is breast milk,” she said.

Depending on the age of their baby, a lactating parent should typically express their milk every two to four hours if they can’t breastfeed directly, said Jennifer Horne, a lactation consultant with the Lactation Network, which connects families with breastfeeding consultants and products. Given the amount of time air travel can take — from traveling to and from the airport to going through security and actually flying — someone without their baby will probably need to pump at least once, she said.

“Our bodies are made to express the milk regularly,” she said. “There are definitely some problems they can run into if they’re not doing that.”

Without being able to pump, the parent can feel pain and discomfort; breasts can become engorged, which can lead to plugged milk ducts. Ultimately, Horne said, that can result in mastitis, a breast infection that, if untreated, could lead to a breast abscess, which could require hospitalization.

Horne said she’s worked on plans with lactating parents who had to travel, a task that typically requires confirming TSA rules and finding locations where pumping can be done comfortably. Horne said she’s recommended that parents bring a bag of frozen peas instead of regular ice packs because they aren’t liquid.

Calandrelli’s experience highlights the challenges that nursing parents can encounter, including finding a place to pump. Legislation passed in the past few years ensures that more than 140 U.S. airports provide clean, private spaces for breastfeeding or pumping. Small airports are not required to start offering those areas until this fall.

With more people traveling again, some parents may be traveling while lactating for the first time, and TSA officers may be encountering more of those parents now said Sascha Mayer, co-founder and CEO of Mamava, which makes lactation pods. That could lead to a steep learning curve for everyone.

Mamava publishes a guide called “Fly Fearlessly With Breast Milk” to help travelers understand their rights at TSA checkpoints.

Mayer said a parent who is breastfeeding and works outside the home essentially has three jobs: “You have your job job, you have your home job, and you have your breastfeeding job. … Doing that while traveling, it’s just exponentially more complicated and difficult.”

Since Calandrelli’s posts have gone viral, she hopes to work with lawmakers to affect TSA policy. “I want President Biden to direct Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and the Department of Homeland Security to stop TSA from discriminating against moms who travel,” she wrote in a follow-up email.

She’d like TSA to “classify and clearly state on their website that breast milk, formula, and related breast pumping equipment is considered ‘medically necessary’ ” as well as improve training and work with nonprofit groups to improve testing for breast milk and formula.