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How to Channel your Frustration around Getting through Airport Security with a Baby

babies at the airport

We’re not going to lie. Getting through airport security with a baby is a hassle.

Since September 11, travel, especially air travel, is an increasingly stressful experience. Regular PA announcements remind you that abandoned luggage is a reason to call in the bomb squad. Your hangnail clippers are so dangerous that it is totally inconceivable that you should be allowed to bring them on board. There are subtle and not so subtle reminders that your absent-mindedness might get you on the terror-watch list.  

But it wasn’t always this way. 

Flying used to be a breeze

I remember when I was in college in Washington, DC; I could make it from my dorm room to my room at my parents’ place in suburban New York in two hours flat.

Here’s the break down: 

  • 25 minutes to get to the airport,
  • 5-7 minutes to get from the entrance through security and on board, (really!)
  • just under an hour to fly up to New York AND get out to the pick up area,
  • and 30 minutes to drive to my parents’ place.

Sometimes it took me a bit longer because of traffic. And sometimes I would miss my flight, so I would catch the next shuttle which was 30 minutes later at the other end of the terminal.

But getting through the airport, through security and onboard never took more than 7 minutes. Really. And I did not have TSA Pre-Check. Nor did I have Frequent Flyer Status on any airline. Nor was anyone making any special exceptions for me.

I was just a reasonably smart traveler who didn’t pack aerosol cans or butcher knives in my carry-on and who most security agents could tell was a harmless college student with an upcoming econ exam. 

Post 9/11 air travel

Most people would agree that airport security was probably a bit too lax before September 11, although all the perpetrators were totally within regular security limits. None was carrying a bomb, nor even anything that was not allowed through security. The most dangerous items they had, which they turned into weapons, were box cutters. 

But now, I feel like the pendulum has swung too far to the other side. Security is excessive, often times it’s a hassle and if you’re traveling with a baby it’s consistently frustrating. 

I’m not making any excuses or saying that we should go back to the pre-9/11 situation. After all, I saw the Pentagon in smoke from my college campus, my parents were both in Manhattan on that day and we know several people who died in the attacks. But the current state of security screening is leaving me frustrated, annoyed and frankly, not feeling particularly secure. 

Going through airport security with a baby is a nightmare

I have many bones to pick, but the one that I will focus on today is getting through airport security with a baby.

My son just turned three and we travel 3 to 4 times a year with him since birth. So we definitely experienced the gamut of security screenings for families and baby-related liquids and equipment.

We were pleasantly surprised in Charleston where the agent sent us to a family line which was akin to the TSA Pre-Check line.

We were confused at Newark Liberty where the TSA agent told us that we could only bring through the baby formula and squeeze packs on condition that my husband or I have a pat down. But we could choose who got it.

And we were overwhelmed and exhausted at Heathrow where the security agent made us pull out every last tube of liquid or semi-liquid (including chapstick) from the deep corners of our carry-ons. Essentially, we completely unpacked all of our carry-ons at security and had every moist wipe, infant bubble bath sample and butt cream inspected. As that was around hour 20 of a 24-hour trip, we were already tired and our baby fussy.

The constant bells, alarms and flashing lights at the security checkpoint did nothing to soothe our son. Once the security agent had turned all our bags inside out, he offered to repack our bags and just started randomly throwing stuff in which I’d meticulously organized. Needless to say, I nearly lost it on him and let him know that I did NOT need his help. Meanwhile, our son, 15 months at the time, did lose it which just made the experience all the more frustrating. We vowed to avoid Heathrow at all costs, at least when traveling as a family. 

Now, I could chalk this up to bad luck with agents. Or our rookie mistake of distributing liquids in different bags in order to distribute weight.

All families experience this hassle

But unfortunately, everyone I talk to who flies with a baby has at least one (and often more) complaints about how the TSA screened their family. I hear of everything from parents being forced to dump expressed breast milk (very painful because it is so EXHAUSTING to pump) to ice packs meant to keep milk cool being confiscated to breast pumps being broken.

Not to mention the excessive amounts of time it takes to inspect everything. And the fact that TSA agents seem to expect you to soothe your baby unpack all your bags, fold and unfold your stroller and keep track of your travel documents simultaneously.

Honestly, it’s a miracle that we never lost anything at security (although several times we’ve made it halfway down the terminal and had to backtrack because we realized we forgot something). 

There is hope for improvements in getting through airport security with a baby!

Thankfully, I’ve now found an outlet to channel all this frustration! There’s a bill, the Bottles and Breastfeeding Equipment Screening (BABES) Act [HR 5065/ S 3299] that’s been introduced by Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler and Senator Kelly Ayotte. It improves training for Transportation Security Agency (TSA) officers around existing policies and procedures regarding transporting breastmilk, formula, and infant feeding equipment in carry-on luggage. And Bébé Voyage is teaming up with them to make sure the bill gets passed. 

In the meantime, here are a few tips to help you get through airport security with a baby: 

    1. Keep all your liquids together. We now put everything in one cooler bag (including toiletries in a separate ziplock bag if it’s a long trip). That way we only open one bag up when we go through security.
    2. Avoid baby-unfriendly airports. We had (or heard of) particularly heinous security experiences in Atlanta, at Chicago O’Hare and at Heathrow. If you’re not sure how an airport on your route rates, ask our community in Club Bébé Voyage. 
    3. Always keep the baby in close proximity to the liquids. We tried strategies where we had one parent go through security quickly and find a quiet spot to hang out with the baby, only to have the other parent get stuck for even longer because she couldn’t prove that all these liquids were for an infant.
    4. Sign-up for TSA Pre-Check. If you travel often enough, it is definitely worth it to sign-up for this service that expedites your security screening. Children under 12 years old can go through with a parent who has Pre-Check. If you travel internationally, consider getting Global Entry, which includes Pre-Check.

Editor’s Note: the BABES Act was signed into law on Dec. 20, 2016.

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