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Friendly skies? Not always for breastfeeding mothers

A while ago I wrote a post called when breastfeeding is a safety hazard as a reaction to what I thought was a ridiculous clause in an airline policy. I've been thinking a lot more about breastfeeding on airplanes since then and enjoyed the conversation that we all had about the issue in the comments on that post.

As a result, I've done some research on airline policies towards breastfeeding and incidents where women have been asked or told to stop breastfeeding, to cover up or to move while breastfeeding. I'm excited to announce that I have an upcoming post outlining the policies of various airlines on breastfeeding to help you make an informed choice about who to fly with. I am also working on a piece with tips on breastfeeding while traveling by plane (completed!), including information on your rights and what to do if someone tells you to stop.

But while I finish work on those, I wanted to start with a post outlining the airplane breastfeeding incidents that I am aware of.

Some men are offended by bare breasts (WestJet, 2008): Vancouver teacher Erin Tarbuck was offered a blanket on a WestJet flight because "some men find the sight of a bare breast quite offensive". Tarbuck refused the blanket, but one was brought to her anyways. Apparently, no one had complained about her nursing and the flight attendant was just being "proactive". The company is defending the flight attendant's actions, saying that it has a duty to make its customers feel comfortable. Tarbuck plans to file a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal if she doesn't hear back from the company with a change in position soon. This case was reported in an article by the CBC.

Stop the plane, she won't take our dirty blanket (United Airlines, 2008): Alina was breastfeeding her daughter on a United Airlines flight before take-off when a flight attendant threw a blanket over her and the baby. When she knocked it away, he insisted that she needed to cover up to protect the other passengers or she could not breastfeed on the plane. When she asserted her rights in accordance with South Carolina law, the flight attendant ran off and got the pilot to stop the plane. He tried to get her to move to first class where there were no other passengers around and she refused, but she did agree to move to the window seat. She wrote about her experience on the kellymom.com message boards and has worked with FirstRight to write a letter to United Airlines.

When 3 is more than 3 (Transportation Security Administation, 2007): Here is one where the airline is not to blame. In fact, American Airlines had given Cheryl Cirillo-Tarica use of an executive office to pump breastmilk when her flight was cancelled and she had to wait for the next one. Despite the fact that she was only carrying 3oz with her (freshly pumped at the airport), and was within the rules for acceptable carry-on liquids, TSA agents said that the bag was too big. When American Airlines staff came to her support, the TSA agents said "how do you know she pumped, did you watch her pump?". Cirillo-Tarica ended up going home and missing her business trip because she was so upset with the ordeal. This story was reported by CBS Chicago.

No baby, no breastmilk (Transportation Security Administration, 2007): Rachel Poppelwell was travelling on a flight without her baby when she tried to board with 6oz of breastmilk, seperated into two 3oz containers and stored according to TSA requirements. However, staff insisted that she needed to have her baby with her (um, if she did, she would have nursed). The staff had misinterpreted the requirements, which said that if she wanted to bring in excess of the regular liquid allowance of breastmilk, she needed to have her baby with her. However, she could bring any allowable liquid (i.e. one that cannot be used to make explosives), if it was in the allowable quantities. She was forced to dump the breastmilk in order to board the plane. She later received an apology for the error. This story was reported in the OC Register.

Cover up or get off (Delta/Freedom Airlines, 2006): Emily Gillette was breastfeeding her 22 month old on a code shared Delta and Freedom Airlines flight from Vermont to New York when she was told to cover up. When she refused, she and her family were kicked off the plane. Despite pleading with the co-pilot, pilot, and ticket agents, they were not permitted to remain on board and therefore missed the last flight of the night. She filed a complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission which was heard in March 2008. The commission found that she had been discriminated against by Freedom Airlines. I loved this quote on The Australian regarding this incident: "It's ironic that since a lot of US airlines - airlines everywhere, actually - treat you like cattle that they also might get a bit squeamish over the thought of a dairy."

Adults can eat on board, but babies should wait until they arrive at their destination (SkyWest/United Airlines 2005): K.K. Tetreault was told to stop breastfeeding her 7 month old child on a SkyWest flight (SkyWest operates as a carrier for United). She was encouraged to wait until they arrived at their destination to feed the baby out of concern for other passengers, but was told she had to at the very least cover up. Tetreault had begun working with Promom on a response to the incident when she was contacted by SkyWest by phone and the call was followed up with an apology letter, a $100 gift certificate and promises to retrain staff. The story was reported in the Eureka Reporter.

Barbara Walters doesn't like The View (2005): In one of what would become many episodes of "The View" where breastfeeding got bashed, Barbara Walters expressed discomfort about women nursing on airplanes. Walters stated: “It made me very nervous, she didn’t cover the baby with a blanket. It made us uncomfortable.” She went on to make remarks that were taken to be the equivalent of congratulating her co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck for choosing to give her daughter formula. This incident and the follow-up nurse-in was written up on Alas, a blog and addressed by INFACT Canada. The woman on the plane with Barbara Walters was subsequently interviewed on Only The Blog Knows Brooklyn.

Those breastfeeding terrorists (Continental Airlines, 2003): Deborah Wolfe was on a Continental Airlines flight back home to Vancouver when a male passenger complained about her breastfeeding and changing a diaper on the plane. She refused a request to move to the back of the plane to nurse and also refused a request to cover up with a blanket because the blanket had not been sealed. The offended passenger approached Wolfe directly and she asked him if he had a problem with her nursing her son. As a result, Wolfe was "threatened with detainment, RCMP involvement and legal charges for terrorist action against a U.S. citizen in international airspace while on an American flight during a time of war." Wolfe was forced to sign a paper "promising that she would neither break Continental's rules about such things, nor speak to American passengers." Apparently Continental's rule on breastfeeding was that women could nurse in their seats unless a passenger complains, in which case the woman and baby would be moved to the back of the plane. This ridiculous incident was reported on by INFACT Canada.

Did I miss any?

If any of you are aware of any other incidents that I have not listed here, please let me know either by commenting on this post or e-mail me at phdinparenting at gmail dot com. Let's hope these are the last!

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Reader Comments (31)

Wow, especially the last one, that's just mad! I wouldn't cover myself with those airplane blankets never mind a nursing child. I have yet to meet a child who will nurse while bundled under a blanket!

August 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterhalfpintpixie

That is so annoying, when a baby is hungry a baby must eat. I am sure the same annoyed passengers would also complain that the baby is howling because she is hungry. I do have a very light cotton blanket that I use to cover up because I personally feel uncomfortable baring breast, and because my daughter is at that phase where she is so curious about everything else that she keep forgetting to nurse and keeps looking around. Why can't the men just look away?!

August 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteryoungmuslimmother

Living in a rural community, my travel options are limited. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to the policies post. Thanks for the research and updates.

August 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKris

Excellent summary of anti-breastfeeding incidents on planes. I completely agree that this is a problem, and feel much sympathy for the poor women who were basically told that the way they feed their children is shameful.

I just wanted to add that there have surely been countless more positive incidents involving breastfeeding on airplanes, and that most airline staff are informed and reasonable.

When my son was seven months old, I flew from Toronto to Calgary on WestJet, and after we boarded we had a lovely flight attendant come and chat with us. She highly recommended nursing during takeoff and landing to help my little one's ears adjust. I was not bothering by anyone, passenger or staff, on either the flight out or the flight home.

I'm certainly not trying to downplay the importance of these incidents, or to suggest that the mothers in question do not have every right to complain. Even one nursing mother being harassed is too many. I guess I just wanted to add a positive perspective, as well.

Thank you for an excellent post, and I look forward to reading more!

August 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJanet

@ Janet - I absolutely agree. Many women do have positive experiences on airplanes. I have flown 10 times while nursing and never had anything but good experiences. I have also never been asked to stop nursing or cover up anywhere.

Nonetheless, I do get nervous each time I get on a plane. In any other scenario, if someone does insist that I stop nursing, I know that I have the choice to make a stink without significant repurcussions, I can choose to get up and leave and make a complaint later, etc.

However, on an airplane, you are to a great extent at the mercy of the staff. They can kick you off the plane for being uncooperative if the plane hasn't taken off and can take more serious measures if the plane is already in the air. I know that they would be found to be in the wrong once the incident makes it to the courts, but that isn't always helpful in the heat of the moment.

August 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

A reader kindly reminded me that several moms have been prevented from bringing breastmilk on planes, despite being within the rules set out by the TSA. I added a few examples to this post.

August 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Wow I have not traveled via airplane since having my son and this type of discrimination is completely ridiculous.

August 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLu

The last one seems strange. When we flew this summer, our flight was canceled, and my husband and I ended up being separated on our new flight. They told us our baby wasn't allowed to sit at the back, she had to be with the parent sitting near the front of the plane. Fortunately, I ended up sitting next to a man who had no problem with me breastfeeding. (I turned toward the window to do it, since I've never been able to cover my baby while nursing, but I have no doubt he knew what I was doing.)

August 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHeidi

Heidi - I think it depends on the configuration of the airplane. I have heard that some planes have extra oxygen masks for babies in the back and some in the front, so they will seat families with infants in the appropriate place with regards to oxygen masks. However, that would something that is determined before issuing a boarding card. In the case described in my post, they were asking the woman to move in the middle of the flight to not offend other passengers while breastfeeding.

August 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

[...] of them on my blog, including the Guelph swimming pool incident, a United Airlines incident, and a summary of all airline incidents that I am aware of. A number of other recent nursing in public incidents, including H&M in [...]

[...] No wonder there are so many incidents where breastfeeding women’s rights are violated in the air. [...]

I thought I'd check out what our national airline might have on their website - and found the following passage/s regarding breastfeeding on the Qantas web site. I just LOVE that first sentence - though I wonder how many from North America may interpret it. In Australia to "nurse" a baby means to hold one:

"In the Air

During take off and landing, bassinets must be closed and you must nurse your baby.

Your baby or young child may cry on take off and landing due to the brief 'popping' in their ears as cabin pressure adjusts to altitude. This is perfectly normal. By giving your baby a bottle or breastfeeding at this time, you will help to relieve the 'popping' sensation. For older children and for yourself, the 'popping' can be simply alleviated by chewing on a toffee or sweet.

A limited supply of nappies and baby wipes are available onboard international services, in case of emergency. On domestic services, nappies are available, however, as these are limited, we recommend bringing a supply of your own.

Cabin crew will prepare, heat and wash bottles or pacifiers (dummies) on request. There are no private areas onboard the aircraft to breastfeed babies but you are welcome to feed your baby in your seat."

August 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJo (Tasmania)

You inspired me to do a bit of research into Australia's airline's policies, like Jo above did. The official policies are really encouraging - at least to say, they allow and encourage you to breastfeed in your seat.

I've not heard of anyone being discriminated against in Australin skies, but our Breastfeeding rights are very much enshrined Australia wide. The negative publicity alone would be enough to scare many airlines off messing with a breastfeeding mum - or so I'd hope!

Virgin Blue's policies are similar to qantas, in that they encourage you to breastfeed during take off and landing. And very neatly don't say anything about being discrete, or private.

It makes my blood boil to see the experiences of other women internationally doing something they are naturally born to do.

[...] information on airline breastfeeding policies in an earlier post. It is also useful to know what incidents may have occurred on the airline in the past and how the situation was [...]

Thanks for getting the word out there. I would rather see a nursing mom than hear a screaming baby.

September 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commentershonda little

I've never had to deal with this fortunately - the one time I flew with my daughter she was over a year old and already weaned. But I find these incidents ridiculous. These airlines should be ashamed for treating people like criminals for doing something that is entirely natural and wholesome.

September 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKimberly

[...] then I was reading this post at PhD in Parenting and this one at Breastfeeding123 about the litany of incidences this year in [...]

December 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterNoble Savage » Blog Arch

[...] information on airline breastfeeding policies in an earlier post. It is also useful to know what incidents may have occurred on the airline in the past and how the situation was [...]

I can't believe the note about Barbara Walters. Did she not have children? Did she not breastfeed? And she PRAISED Elisabeth for formula feeding her baby?!?! Outrageous. If you can breastfeed, why would you opt out? I am leaving for a trip next week. I'm kind of nervous, but I'll be w/ my husband. I can sit on the inside and no one will notice. The people who DO notice are looking to cause a scene. Why would it offend people? HOW? Read a book or sleep. Don't look around for a woman's breast, while she is doing something God created women to be able to do. Anyway, thank you very much for these blogs.

August 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHeidi

[...] No wonder there are so many incidents where breastfeeding women’s rights are violated in the air. [...]

[...] the midst of this saga, I can’t help but think of the several women who have been kicked off of flights for breastfeeding. [...]

February 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSomething Borrowed: “Kev

[...] sure everyone has heard the stories of mothers who have been harassed on airplanes. Now, in Detroit, a bus driver tried to kick Keva Williams, who blogs at Single Mama Tales it All, [...]

I wanted to mention that I fly ALL the time with my two young daughters and have nursed them in countless airports and airplanes in all over the U.S. and on several continents for the past 5 years. I have never,ever had a bad experience. I publicly nursed my babies/toddlers in everywhere from church to restaurants to parks. I do not use a nursing cover or nursing shirts, but I am VERY discreet. I have never had anyone treat me with anything but respect and kindness. Even when I was nursing my 2.5 year old. My heart goes out to those who have had bad experiences, but the skies for me have always been friendly...at least while I was nursing. Crying babies are a whole other story :)

August 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristine Carrillo

We've travelled extensively both domestically (US) and internationally with our daughter, and we've yet to have an incident in which we were asked to stop nursing or cover up on the plane. I've also carried 15+ oz of breastmilk through TSA without incident when I was away from my baby on a business day trip.

That said, I always, always, always take precautions. I'm careful to print out and carry with me the TSA rules about breastmilk, the airline-specific rules about breastfeeding, and any applicable laws for the location I am leaving and the location to which I am travelling. If I were approached about breastfeeding, I would be prepared to deal with the situation immediately.

I also suspect that I send out a very clear "Do NOT mess with me" vibe in general. I suspect the fact that I do not come off as an easy target helps prevent people from approaching me. Shame, really. I've got so many good comebacks! I wonder how much of the issues above simply boil down to bullying. Some people really like to hit a soft target, which is absolutely and totally shameful.

Would any of my precautions prevent me from getting kicked off a plane if an overzealous flight attendant chose to harass me? I've no idea. It probably means I'm more likely to get kicked off because I'm fully prepared to do battle over it!

My advice to nursing moms who will be travelling is to carry the print-outs I mentioned above and just go for it.

August 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMolly A

Wow -- its heartbreaking to see so many negative experiences, but I think the airlines have made an effort recently to improve the situation. I took a 48hr trip 18mos ago for an interview and the biggest issue I had was that the airports lacked a place for me to pump. Thankfully the USO came to my rescue. When the lady at the front desk found out AA and United told me to go pump in the family bathroom she cleared out a utility closet for me to pump in. Not ideal, but at least sanitary!
The biggest relief was that I was able to carry on ALL my milk when I flew back -- it was excluded from the liquids limitations. There was even a special line at security so I didn't 'inconvenience' other passengers. When we flew this past summer we took some pumped milk in excess of 5oz for our baby and a sealed juice box for our toddler and TSA allowed us to take them through.
On that same trip I fed my <3mo old during takeoff, landing, and for most of the cross country flight in the aisle seat to boot. I had no complaints from anyone. Of course I did have him mostly covered with a blanket as he sleeps really well when he's warm and fed ;)
Still, I don't see the issue with BFing on a plane, even uncovered. I guess because everyone's so packed together nearby passengers can't make snarky comments out of ear shot to ease their own insecurities?
I'm sure the passengers on our flight appreciated that all they heard out of my 3mo old were burps and the smacking of lips, not hungry wails.

August 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElyse

This is all VERY sad. I would think more & more people would be getting used to nursing moms & babies. My son is 3 and several of my friends are having babies now & they always ask if it will bother him & of course it doesn't. If he asks I just tell him that the baby is eating. I wish all people could be as accepting as a 3 year old is. He just says "oh" and moves on.
I nursed my youngest on a plan and no one said a thing to me at all. I did cover up as he preferred it, but gosh people "GET OVER IT". Babies need to eat just like everyone else does.
Most mom's I know are not flashing boob all over the place unless the baby pops off and starts looking around, so I really really don't get what the issues are.

August 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa B

Just jumping off from Lisa's comment (not disagreeing with her *at all*) Does the whole "flashing boob" thing actually happen? I hear people talking about this all the time. Usually in the context of, "Well I don't care if someone breastfeeds as long as they're discrete and don't hang their boobs out all over the place." I have yet to see this happen. Is this actually a problem? My experience, covered or not, is that unless you actually walk up to a nursing mother, lean in really close, and stare really hard, there really isn't anything to see besides the back of a baby's head.

Now granted, on planes, we're in a lot closer proximity to each other, but still. You've got to work at it to actually see boobage, and you've got to be staring really, really hard to catch that split-second flash of nipple as the baby latches/unlatches.

The mythical breastfeeding exhibitionist is one cliche that really needs to be laid to rest.

August 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMolly A

I will say that I have actually seen it first hand. At the zoo I saw a mother with her shirt pulled up over both breasts, her little one on her lap just looking all over the place. The mom was talking to someone else as she sat there right on the path system with both breast exposed for the entire world to see. Hey she seemed perfectly content so who am I to say. It didn't make me uncomfortable - to me it is whatever - but I could see how it could.
That is the one that REALLY sticks out in my head, it was just last year. But yes 99% of the time even if the baby is uncovered you cannot see anything unless you are really invading someone's personal space. As a FF mom who did her best to BF I have NO issues with anyone BF anywhere.
Again those who have issues with it, even for those few that do leave themselves completely exposed GET OVER IT. If you find it horrible LOOK AWAY!

August 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa B

It is certainly hard being a working/pumping/traveling mom. TSA does have rules that protect us when we travel with our milk, but they are rarely implemented properly when I fly each week. Last year, I had quite a horrific episode traveling home from my work trip. I had pumped milk and requested an alternate screening, as breast milk is to be treated as a medical liquid. I was denied. I was held for over an hour while TSA basically taught me a lesson about trying to tell them what the rules were. I was able to obtain the airport video footage and my brother in law condensed it into an 11 minute youtube video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XhnZlmLGK8 We are in the process of filing a federal lawsuit so this never has to happen again.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterstacey


Thank you for your comment. I wrote about your ordeal both on this blog and on Care2.com:



Best of luck with your lawsuit. I look forward to hearing the result.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

wow, thank you. you brought attention to it early on. someone was kind enough to turn me onto your blog just recently so I just started following. lots of good information here. :) thanks for the support.

August 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterstacey

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