Pumping from Country to Country
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 24 No. 1, January-February 2007, p. 12
It's another day at work and I am sitting in the flight deck crossing the Bay of Bengal. I have been in the air for four hours, with another five to go before getting to my destination in the Middle East. It's fairly quiet in the flight deck and I ask the Captain if I can have a break for 10 minutes or so. I pick up my backpack, head to the nearest available toilet, and take out two battery-powered breast pumps. I have been in Hong Kong for six years working as an airline pilot. I met my husband soon after moving to Hong Kong and our first child was born in April 2005.
During my pregnancy, I had made my mind up about how I was going to deal with getting back to work after our son was born. It was very simple -- breastfeed for a maximum of two weeks, then put my son on formula so he was completely weaned once I finished maternity leave.
Then my son, Brayden, was born and reality struck. Breastfeeding was a very natural process and I felt, as a mum, that I was doing my bit to help my son get the best possible start to his life. I realized very quickly that I would be breastfeeding for a lot longer than I had initially planned.
For the two months prior to returning to work, I expressed every morning so that we had a good milk supply in the freezer for when I wasn't at home. After some initial resistance, we got our son used to taking my milk from a bottle. I felt a little happier that I could go away for a few days knowing he had my milk.
Before I knew it, my maternity leave was up. Brayden was three months old and it suddenly dawned on me that I was going back to work. It was very easy expressing at home, but how on earth was I going to do it in an aircraft, in hotels, and at airports? How was I going to keep my milk fresh, especially as I could be away for up to five days at a time?
I got my roster and saw that it was varied. It included everything from day trips to longer trips with a number of nights away. I realized I was going to have to express while I was at work, not just in hotels as I had assumed.
Trying to find time to express wasn't easy, especially on day trips. While flying around Asia, there usually isn't a "quiet" time when I can leave the flight deck for 10 to 20 minutes. It soon became obvious that I had to make use of the time on the ground during turnarounds. This generally worked, but it wasn't without drama!
I was on a trip from Hong Kong to Singapore, Bangkok, and then back to Hong Kong. It was a very long day and I used the ground time in Bangkok to express my milk. I was sitting in the aircraft toilet with two breast pumps attached thinking that I looked like a "cow in the milking shed" when, before I knew it, the toilet door had been unlocked from the outside and a male Thai cleaner was standing there giving me a very strange look and going very red. I don't think he could figure out what I was doing and he quickly slammed the door shut. I never saw him again!
For the longer trips away, I purchased a travel-sized sterilizer and a cooler bag. The mini bars in the hotel rooms were used for milk storage. If for some reason the mini bar wasn't working, I became a real nuisance to room service as every five hours I was requesting a bucket of ice so my packets of milk would stay cool!
In certain countries, I would use only mineral water to rinse out the expressing containers. Even though I sterilized these, I wouldn't have been able to forgive myself if my son got sick from tap water that could have contaminated my milk.
On leaving the hotel, I would pack the milk into the cooler bag and surround it by a couple of bottles filled with ice. This kept the milk cool on the trip to the airport, which could take up to one and a half hours. Once on the aircraft, I made use of the refrigerator chillers, normally used for passenger meals, to keep my milk fresh until I returned home.
My son is now 14 months old and I am still actively breastfeeding. I have gotten into a routine at work and it's second nature now. I get asked all the time, "Why do you do it?" For me, it's not about why. I think, "Why not?" Breastfeeding helps me bond with my son once I return home from work. Also, I know that breastfeeding has helped to keep him healthy. I am so happy I didn't stick with my original plan.
Editor's Note: This story is reprinted from LLL Asia's publication, Close to the Heart, Vol. 7 No. 3.