Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Updated September 2015
Robyn Roche-Paull Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA
Photo: Tara Ruby Photography
Deployments & overseas assignments
Deployments and overseas assignments present their own particular challenges to maintaining breastfeeding and pumping. Here are a few guidelines and examples for managing breastfeeding during these situations.
Excerpt adapted from Breastfeeding in Combat Boots.
For any type of deployment that will last longer than just a few weeks or one where you will be sent overseas, you have several choices: you may be able to pump and dump your milk, pump and ship your milk home, or you may have to wean your baby. There are no hard-and-fast rules here, it all depends on your command, where you are being sent, the accommodations you’ll have, if your family can travel to see you periodically, as well as other factors. However, it is not impossible to manage as the following example shows.
An Air Force medical officer, Captain Ginger Bohl, was sent to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and had to leave her four-month-old son at home. She was breastfeeding at the time of her deployment, and once at her post in Afghanistan, she was able to pump five times every day. She sent her pumped, frozen milk home once a week via DHL to her husband and son in Texas. She continued to pump for her full deployment, and while she was not successful in having him return to breastfeeding, he did receive her milk until he turned one year old, her original goal for breastfeeding.
For any type of deployment that will last longer than just a few weeks or one where you will be sent overseas, you have several choices: you may be able to pump and dump your milk, pump and ship your milk home, or you may have to wean your baby.
If you choose to pump and ship your milk home, it will require some advance planning on your part. Before any deployment you will need to stock up on some essential supplies. In addition to your double-electric breast pump (and all the items you normally pack for pumping at work), you may want to pack some of the following items that other military mothers have found useful when shipping milk home.
- Hand pump or attachment in case your pump malfunctions, pieces go missing, or you have no electricity.
- Pump cleaning gear: bottle brush and dish soap or steam cleaning bags.
- Hand sanitizer—you may not always have running water.
- Batteries—you may not always have electricity. • Extension cord/adapter—you may not always be near a convenient outlet.
- Milk storage bags—they take up less room and ship more easily.
- Sharpie marker to date your breast milk.
- Electric cooler to keep your milk cold until you can ship it home—you may not have access to a refrigerator.
- Styrofoam or soft-sided coolers for shipping milk, at least two or more, depending on how much you produce.
- Shipping box—large enough to hold the cooler(s).
- Shipping labels.
- Packing tape.
- Larger Ziploc bags—gallon size or larger.
- Newspaper and/or brown lunch bags for wrapping frozen milk.
While you are deployed, you will need to decide how many shipments you want to make, bearing in mind that they are not cheap! Choose a day when your schedule will allow you to pack and ship your milk. It is time consuming to package your milk and ship it off. If you have been freezing your milk all along, you are ready to go. If not (and you’ve just been keeping it cold in the electric cooler), you’ll need to find somewhere to freeze it overnight. Finally, you’ll need to arrange for transportation to go to the shipping center, or you can also arrange to have the carrier pick up your package. It goes without saying that you should always have a back-up plan, since things can get FUBAR’ed in an instant.
Taking the time to package your milk carefully will ensure that it gets to your caregiver, and ultimately to your baby, in perfect shape and ready to use. Frozen breast milk packed properly will generally stay frozen long enough to ship it overnight or the next day. The packing directions are basically the same. Have all your supplies ready to go (shipping boxes, newspaper, labels, etc).
Begin by putting four bags of frozen milk into a lunch bag, and then wrap with another, forming a “milk pack.” Once you have them all wrapped in lunch bags, put a few of the milk packs in a Ziploc bag, creating packages of milk. Then line the cooler and layer the packages with newspaper. Fill any remaining space in the cooler with wadded up newspaper. Pack the coolers in the shipping box, secure it well with packing tape, and label. Be aware that it will be heavy.
As of this writing, the United States Post Office will not accept breast milk for shipping, so you will have to go with FedEx©, DHL© or UPS© as your carrier, and the shipping rates are not cheap, especially for overnight or two-day shipping. You must check with any countries the milk will be transported through to be sure that it meets all customs regulations (and some countries do not allow human milk to be transported within their boundaries). Ship your milk with the fastest shipping speed possible (overnight or two to three days) and be aware of the increased shipping charges, especially overseas. Mark on the package carefully that it is fragile and perishable. Your caregiver on the receiving end should carefully check that the milk is still frozen and discard any milk that may have thawed or leaked.
If you will be sent on overseas assignment where your family can visit and you will have the ability to pump, you might be able to keep your breastfeeding relationship alive as related by the mother in the following story. Air Force Staff Sergeant Jenny Desaulniers was able to pump and dump her milk while on a six-month deployment overseas and resume breastfeeding her daughter upon her arrival back home in the States.
I was scheduled and left for a deployment to Spain right before my daughter was six months old. I went on a pumping frenzy. I stored milk for the months prior so my husband (also active duty) would be able to feed her. It was very hard leaving, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do about my breastfeeding, but I soon figured out. I knew that my husband was going to visit with my daughter in Spain, so I continued to pump and dump while I was deployed. I left in the beginning of July, and my husband came to visit at the end of August, beginning of September, and I re-introduced my daughter to breastfeeding. She went right back to it like I had not been gone. It was wonderful.
After they left I continued to pump. My mother, mother-in-law, and daughter came to visit me again in October. Prior to their visit, I noticed that my milk supply was getting low when I would pump, so I contacted a friend back home for advice on increasing my milk. I went on a mission to find herbal supplements to help out. It was very hard to find anything since I had trouble communicating what I needed to people at the stores. Every pharmacist I spoke with couldn’t understand why I wanted something to increase my milk. They all tried to give me something to dry it up. I finally gave up on the idea of finding something on my own and went to the base hospital. It took me a few tries, but I found a great doctor who understood and helped me with a prescription to try to increase my milk.
When my daughter came, I was able to re-introduce her again with no issues. Same when I returned home at the end of November. My husband left seven days after I returned home for his own deployment, and I was sent on a short-notice deployment again in February, a month after my daughter turned one. That was when I again pumped what I could and left it for my mother-in-law since my husband was also gone. I just stopped pumping when I left and had no problems drying up. I was very lucky, more than lucky I think. To be able to go on a deployment that my family was able to visit me was a blessing. I am very happy that I pumped through my deployment and was able to feel that bond with my daughter again. It was tough at times, but all paid off to have her up against me again.
Finally, you should realize that there are going to be some situations where you simply must wean. Unaccompanied orders and shipboard deployments of six months or more are prime examples. If you opt to wean and you know your date of deployment ahead of time, wean gradually to ease the transition emotionally and physically for your baby and yourself. While you may be tempted to breastfeed your infant until the last day before departure to prolong the relationship, it is harder on you physically to do so. As tough as this time will be in your life, keep in mind that you have given your baby the gift of breastfeeding for whatever amount of time that you could. It will last his or her lifetime!
Robyn Roche-Paull has been an LLL Leader in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA, for 12 years. She is an IBCLC in private practice and a US Navy veteran who successfully breastfed her eldest child while serving on active duty. Robyn has a sincere desire to help all military mothers reach their breastfeeding goals, and is the author of Breastfeeding in Combat Boots: A Survival Guide to Successful Breastfeeding While Serving in the Military
See www.breastfeedingincombatboots.com and on Facebook, where mothers can post questions and receive support from other military mothers the world over. She and her husband, Stephen, have been married for 18 years and he is currently serving his 21st year on active duty in the US Navy. They have three independent, long-term breastfed children: Morgan (son, 16), Siobhan (daughter,13) and Tiernan (son, 9).