Travels with Baby Essentials: Surviving TSA


This is something that I have been planning to write about for some time, but feel even more prompted after an old article from Healthyway showed up on my feed today, describing one mother’s experience with TSA. I’ll let you read the article for yourself, but honestly, I find the mother’s outrage a bit over the top, which I chalk up to her being flustered and emotional about flying alone, and not properly prepared for the normal TSA procedures.

Note: there is one bit thrown in at the end about a TSA agent suggesting that she cover up while breastfeeding, and honestly, I agree with the mother that it is none of that dude’s business and that if she is fine with exposing her breast while feeding (which I personally never was, and have always preferred more modesty) then that is up to her to decide while traveling in the US.
So, in order to help others from being surprised, flustered and outraged at the steps that are involved in getting through TSA with your baby’s essentials, here are some of my notes:

You Can Bring Extra Liquids


TSA indicates that parents traveling with infants/young children may bring breastmilk, milk, formula and juice through security with them, exceeding the 3.4 oz liquid limit. They do not provide any limit on the amount that can be brought through, but I have seen the word “reasonable” used in a few places to describe the allowed amount. From my personal experience, I have carried up to six 5oz bottles of breast milk with me without any issue. I have also carried unopened liquid formula through (up to three 12-oz bottles) and in more recent days have brought a bottle or two of whole milk through with me, both sealed and unsealed at various times. The amounts that I mention are just the amounts that I have needed, and therefore brought, and are not limits of any kind.
Now, as I have expressed that these are the amounts that I have brought with me “without any issue” this is because I have gone into each of these situations with an understanding that each bottle that I have brought will be individually scanned and examined, that I may be subject to pat-down (and will definitely be subject to pat-down if I am carrying sealed containers), and that I will need to provide additional time before my flight so that I can be patient and wait for these additional screenings to be concluded.

What Additional Screenings to Expect

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All liquids that you bring will be expected to go through the same X-ray machine as the rest of your bags. You should let the TSA agents know what additional liquids you have, and if you can easily pull them out and put them into a bin by themselves, you should do this – or at least realize that the bin that has the extra liquids will be pulled aside and put in queue for additional screening, and you will not have access to this bin until the TSA agent is ready to screen it, and brings it over to you. This means that if you put your shoes in the same bin as your milk or formula, you will be standing shoeless until the screening is complete.

Each bottle or container needs to be screened separately. Depending on the airport/TSA set-up, one or all of the following may need to be done:

  • They may put each bottle into a special bottle screener
  • They may rub the entire outside of the bottle with a pad and then test the pad
  • They may ask you to take a tiny bit of the liquid out for them to test
  • They may ask you to open each container and have them hold a PH strip over the opened container for several seconds

This process is repeated on each bottle, so if you have six of them with you, you should understand that you will be there for several minutes through this process.
If anything comes back testing positive for any kind of substance that their screeners are set to detect, they will require a pat-down by an agent of the same gender as you. They will provide you with the option of having this pat-down where you are, or give you the option to go to a private space to have the pat-down. The pat-downs are pretty standard and honestly, the TSA agents are generally happy to get it over with as quickly as you are.
Another thing to remember about this is that they will have a same-gendered agent do your pat-down, but they don’t just have agents of each gender standing around waiting for when you may come through. You may need to again be patient and wait for a female agent to be available to do your pat-down. During peak times, this can honestly take up to 10 minutes or so, which of course feels way longer when you have a flight to catch, but I promise you that if you get testy with them, YOU WILL WAIT LONGER. TSA agents have to deal with all manner of rude, entitled and impatient people all day – but if you are patient and polite and they will be happy to help you get to where you are going.

Bringing Un-openable Containers

If you are carrying with you a container that is sealed, such as unopened liquid formula, unopened juice or unopened dairy milk, TSA will test the outside of the container and they will require that one person in your party receive a full pat-down. This is standard and you should expect (and allot time for) this pat-down if you are carrying any containers that you cannot open for TSA to perform additional screening on.
We have been lucky when traveling with these kinds of liquids in that the agents that we have worked with have stood by the “person in your party” aspect of the pat-down requirement, and have always suggested that they pat down my husband instead of me (which has been really helpful because I am generally wearing our daughter in a carrier). While this has been our experience, I urge you to expect that they will require you to be the person that gets the pat-down and plan accordingly. It is always better to be pleasantly surprised. The agents can decide that someone requires additional screening based on their behavior, so if you are adamant that a traveling companion be the person that gets the pat-down based on the “person in your party” aspect of the rule, then you will probably seem like you have something to hide, and everyone will get a pat-down.

Other Items to Look Out For

While TSA has a particular hang-up with liquids, your liquids may not be the only items that set off the additional screening alarm bells – and something that has made it through dozens of times before without screening can suddenly be positioned in a way that makes TSA feel that they need to give it a second glance.
Items that I have had unexpectedly cause additional screening include toy cell phones, a stack of board books, board books with electronic buttons on the side and full packages of wipes.

How Much Extra Time Do You Need?


Unfortunately there is no magic amount of time to give when it comes to time needed before one’s flight. There are a lot of factors that you need to consider whenever you are traveling, even when you don’t have any kids in tow. These factors generally include things like size of airport and date/time of travel. When you add the dimension of kids, you need to balance the desire to have enough time to get to where you are going with the concern of keeping said kids entertained before you are ready to board.

With all of this in mind, my general recommendation is to give yourself an extra half an hour from whatever your normal pre-flight arrival time is. I also recommend doing a little research about the airport and terminal that you will be traveling out of to see what kind of facilities they may have for kids. For instance, in Boston, several of the terminals have small “Kidport” playground areas that makes for a perfect way to help get some of the little ones’ energy out before the flight.



US vs Foreign Screenings

Here in the US, there are a few benefits that can help make the process of getting through a little bit easier:

  • You can wear your baby/small child in a carrier through the metal detector and screening process, which is super helpful when trying to get shoes off and on, laptops out and back into bags, etc.
  • Your baby/child can keep on their shoes and light jacket
  • In my experience, TSA will generally let your baby keep a binkie with them through the metal detector

If you are traveling internationally, you should expect that these are not necessarily things that all countries also allow. I have had screeners in foreign airports force me to wake my sleeping baby by taking her out of the carrier and sending the carrier through separately. I have also had screeners that have made me take the binkie out of my daughter’s mouth and take off her soft baby shoes (I’m looking at you, Doha…). While these things are annoying to have happen when the comparatively stricter security of the US makes additional allowances for traveling parents, you have hopefully ventured to another country because you respect and want to experience their culture – and their rules and restrictions are part and parcel of that great experience.
This is not to say that there are not additional allowances made for parents traveling with small children in other countries. In fact, despite some of the screening rules that they require, I have found most other countries to be far MORE accommodating to parents than anything offered here in the US. For example, upon arrival to India, we were ushered into a line for travelers requiring “special assistance” when obtaining our arrival visa stamp. This fast-tracked the arrival process for us by at least half an hour. Similarly, when checking-in for our flight home in Doha, we were sent to an express line and received immediate service (granted, this just got us that much closer to literally the most-stressful worst experience I have ever had at an airport – to be shared in a later post – and this is even accounting for the times that I have been full-on thrown up on at airports).
And the one commonality that can be found while trying to get through airports in all countries is that a smile, a positive attitude and some patience go a LONG way. Kindness is infectious, but rudeness even more so.


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