Women working in the aviation field, such as pilots, flight officers, and aircrew, will require careful planning for pumping, due to the various challenges posed by the nature of the job. For these types of jobs, you really must plan your pumping around the flight schedule, keeping in mind that flight schedules are notorious for changing, depending on the weather, maintenance on the aircraft, and other factors out of your control. You’ll want to take the opportunity to pump as soon as possible before your flight, and again as soon after you land as possible, bearing in mind you’ll also have pre-and post flight briefs to attend to as well.
Depending on your aircraft and mission, you may be on 24-hour standby, in the air for many hours, or have back-to-back flights, and will need to be creative in finding time to pump. You may be able to quickly express milk in the onboard restroom, at the back of the aircraft, or during refueling. Again, this is dependent upon your aircraft type and the familiarity you have with your flight crew (and realize you may have to endure some comments from your crew mates). Stash your pump in your helmet or gear bag and keep a small insulated lunch bag with cold packs available to transport your milk in. It is a good idea to wear nursing pads to control leaking (flight suits are pretty unforgiving with wet milk stains) and plan to take a battery or hand-operated pump with you as back up or for an emergency should your aircraft require maintenance and you cannot get back to your home base. If you are considering transporting your milk home, use the suggestions in the Shipping Milk section on how to pack it.
I was a crew member on E-3s and had to get an extension cord to plug in my pump from a crew chief before we flew, and then I had to pump in the galley with a blanket over me while everyone hung around getting coffee and food all the time hearing the pump and knowing what I was doing under the blanket!!!! That sucked, crew dogs are not nice when it comes to comments, but you just have to crew dog up and tell them to keep their comments to themselves. Staff Sgt., USAF
I’m a C-17 pilot and I breastfed my first for over two years. My second son is seven months old and we’re still going strong. We have a crew rest area that has two bunks and two seats and a fridge in the galley. It’s located right behind the cockpit, which is up the stairs from the rest of the plane. I pumped in the seat in the crew rest area while the copilot flew and talked on the radios. I only did this while at cruise if there wasn’t an extra pilot to jump in the seat for me. I’m quite lucky to be in an airplane where I can get up and pump when I need to. Major, USAF
I’m a SH-60 pilot and when I know we’re going on a SAR mission and I have a few minutes to prepare for the flight, I’ll run to the restroom and pump to empty my breasts beforehand. I also always take my pump with me and try to express whenever we get a break—usually during lunch or when we’re fueling the helicopter. Lt., USN
Some other minor items of interest to breastfeeding mothers who fly are the effects of altitude decompression sickness (ADCS), dehydration, and the gear that is required to be worn when flying. Altitude decompression sickness can occur in pilots and aircrew who fly above 18,000 feet, particularly in unpressurized cabins. It is similar to the decompression sickness that occurs in divers (the ‘Bends’) in that nitrogen is released into the bloodstream causing joint pain, and in worst-case scenarios, neurological and lung involvement resulting in death. Military aircraft and flight crew breathe oxygen at altitude, which is effective in combating ADCS. However, it can still occur. Breastfeeding mothers do not need to worry about the nitrogen released into the bloodstream, as it will not pass into the milk or the baby (Federal Aviation Administration, 2010; Divers Alert Network, 2010).
Female aircrew need to be mindful of dehydration and the possible effect on milk supply. With flights that can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 8-10 hours, depending on the platform, it is imperative that hydration is maintained. While a breastfeeding mother doesn’t need to take in great quantities of water to maintain a good milk supply, not drinking enough liquids can have a deleterious effect on your milk supply. Couple that with infrequent pumping, and you have a recipe for lowered milk output. Dehydration can be a factor when flying for a number of reasons, you may not be able to take in fluids due to the constraints of flying, or you might choose not to drink due to the lack of suitable (or any) relief tubes or restrooms onboard. It is important, as a breastfeeding mother, that you maintain adequate hydration while flying (even if it means wearing a piddle-pak or diaper) so that you can continue to provide your milk to your baby.
Finally, it is wise to keep in mind that all the flight gear you must wear when flying is heavy and a lot of it rests right over your breasts. Some women, not all, are susceptible to plugged ducts from pressure on or near the breasts and armpits (breast tissue extends up into your armpit area). If you find that you are suffering from repeated bouts of plugged ducts, take a good look at how your flight gear fits and where the various straps and buckles are resting. You might find that a simple adjustment is enough to take the pressure off your breast tissue. Breastfeeding and flying are compatible; it just takes a bit of creativity and dedication.