After three kids in five years, it was supposed to be a dream vacation for Emily Cooper and her husband Rory. An opportunity came up for Emily to accompany Rory on a trip to Italy, and after a lot of juggling of schedules and kids, somehow the Maryland couple were able to pull off the impossible: a kid-free five day vacation to Florence. Emily is a breastfeeding mother, committed to nursing her children their first year of life as much as possible, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and countless other pediatric medical associations.
As a working mother, it’s not easy to breastfeed. Emily has pumped everywhere: on an Acela train, in bathrooms in train stations and airports, in the car and countless times in her own office. Over the course of three kids, Emily has become an expert pumper, but it doesn’t make the experience any less challenging.
Just because the Coopers were kid-free didn’t mean that they were free of their parental responsibilities, however. For a trip of this magnitude, Emily brought her trusty breast pump and a game plan. She would have to figure out how to pump on the way to Europe, during their trip and on the way home in order to bring home milk for her son and maintain her supply.
In the weeks leading up to their vacation, Emily meticulously planned their itinerary to allow for pumping and breast milk storage. Before agreeing to the trip, Emily made sure their accommodations had a fridge available, and she chose activities based on her pumping schedule, making sure would be able to pump every few hours. This meant planning to stop at places where an outlet and privacy could be had for 30 minutes at a time. Emily researched and planned her entire trip’s itinerary in a foreign country around her pumping schedule, requiring no small amount of sleuthing (in Italian no less).
Emily’s husband Rory happily carried his wife’s pump and milk through the streets of Florence. They made a joke out of taking photos of him looking dapper in the streets of Europe while carting around what was obviously a bulky breast pump. If this had been an ad campaign, the slogan would have been “Real Men Carry Breast Pumps.”
At the end of the trip, her hard work paid off and she had a supply of breast milk to take home with her. One of Emily’s first orders of business while planning the trip was to investigate the European Union’s rules and regulations regarding traveling with breast milk. She was relieved to discover they are similar to those of the United States, allowing women who travel without their babies to transport their milk as carry-on luggage in unlimited quantities. American airports have equipment to test that the liquids women are carrying aboard are breast milk and not dangerous materials, so Emily, who had traveled with her milk alone in the past on American Airlines, anticipated being able to do so on Lufthansa, the European airline they were flying.
Although they arrived at the airport early, the Coopers immediately ran into trouble. They were told, in violation of the regulations, that the breast milk had to be checked and it could not be carried on. The Florence airport did not have the equipment to analyze breast milk. Rory pulled a Lufthansa representative over to security; she agreed with security that the breast milk could not be brought onto the plane. After a great deal of arguing, Emily relented, taking extra care to pack her cooler with more ice before taking it to Lufthansa’s desk to be checked. In order to do, so the Coopers were charged €90 to check a second bag, even though they were being forced to check this small cooler. Disregarding its precious contents, airline personnel neither tagged the bag as priority nor indicated that it contained medical or perishable contents.
The whole way to Frankfurt for their connecting flight, Emily cried, wondering if the milk she had so painstakingly pumped across Europe for the last five days would be spoiled in transit. As it turned out, the Coopers had reason to worry.
The Coopers landed on Saturday afternoon, but their bags never appeared. After asking agents at Dulles International Airport and the main customer service line, the Coopers learned their bags hadn’t even left Europe yet. Their main checked luggage was stuck in Frankfurt and their cooler with “liquid gold” (as many nursing moms refer to breast milk) had never left Florence airport. After many calls to Lufthansa, during several of which the Coopers were told their bags were missing, their luggage appeared on Monday morning at 5 a.m.
The cooler with spoiled breast milk (their courier complained of the smell) arrived that night at 11:30 p.m. Emily couldn’t bear to dispose of the dozens of ounces of milk and left it to her husband to do so. Even after disposing of the bags outside, the smell hit Emily the moment she stepped outside for work the next day, a heartbreaking reminder of what she had lost.
While many nursing moms maintain a freezer full of spare milk for their babies, Emily has never been able to have more than a few feedings worth as backup. Despite pumping for several years, it’s not easy for Emily, who barely maintains enough of a supply to feed her babies (and often ends up supplementing with formula). The milk she was returning with from Europe was pumped to replace her entire freezer backup storage that her son had gone through while mom was away. She told me, “If I get sick now, I’m tapped. I have no more extra milk. Bringing home five days worth of milk can get us through an illness or a growth spurt. Now I have nothing. It’s about Sam [her infant son] and his well-being. It took so much work, energy and time to put that milk in bags and carry it across the world. It’s so infuriating that I didn’t get any help [from Italian authorities or Lufthansa]. I was prevented from feeding my baby. It’s the worst feeling.”
After their return home and countless calls, emails and social media communications with Lufthansa, the Coopers are furious. Not only was their milk spoiled, but Lufthansa has yet to make any kind of formal acknowledgement of the Coopers’ experience, let alone extend an apology. Although one Lufthansa employee was incredulous at the experience on a social media posting (below), the airline has refused to even share with the Coopers their policies. Posts made to the Lufthansa Facebook pages by Rory have been deleted and ignored by the social media team. Tweets have been answered with a canned response regarding a form, which the Coopers had filled out several times already, with no communication in return. In response to the experience, Rory shared their story on Facebook with the warning “Nursing moms deserve better.” Indeed they do.