Flying With A Feeding Tube: Don’t Be Scared, Be Prepared

Flying with a feeding tube collage. Picture of an airplane in the sky. Picture of a checklist. Picture of formula containers. Picture of a family of 4 at an airport pulling suitcases. Picture of a stethoscope with stuffed animals, some first aid supplies

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Does the idea of flying with a feeding tube overwhelm you? 

You feel like there’s just too much to consider but you desperately want to get away.

Maybe you’ve had a feeding tube for a long time or maybe you’re new at this but regardless, thinking about travelling with a feeding tube can seem like spinning around blindfolded, trying to pin the tail on the donkey. 

Where do you even start? Will your doctor clear you to travel? How do you pack? What are the rules?

I’m going to go through things to consider before, and during travel with a feeding tube and hopefully make the idea more manageable for you.

I also talked to families that have done it and I’ve got some practical tips to share with you.

If you have a feeding tube, you may also have other medical complexities that require additional medical supplies. In this article, I’m sticking specifically with tips for flying with a feeding tube but they may help if you have other medical needs as well.

Let’s tackle this together!

Preparing For Flying With A Feeding Tube

Take your time with planning because being thorough at this step will ensure you are prepared and your trip will go smoothly. 

It’s like the carpenters rule “measure twice, cut once”. You don’t want to be halfway through your trip and realise you didn’t bring enough supplies. Maybe that’s not the best analogy but hopefully you get my point – plan, plan, plan. 

If you’re thinking of travelling, start with talking to your healthcare team.

Consult with your healthcare providers

  • Let your healthcare team know about your plan to travel. Make sure that they don’t have any medical concerns about you flying with your feeding tube. If you’ve had recent medical concerns and things are unstable, they may ask you to wait. 
  • Ask your doctor for a letter to explain your condition and why you have a feeding tube. Specify the supplies and equipment you need for tube feeding – your tube feeding formula or blenderized tube feed, medication and feeding supplies and feeding pump (if you have one)
  • When you are booking your flight, think about the time of day and how it will fit with your feeding and medication schedule. If you are changing time zones, you may need to shift the timing of your usual routine. 

Gather all the necessary supplies and equipment

  • Make a list of ALL the equipment and supplies you use everyday – feeding syringes, feeding bags, caps, extension tubing, medications (regular ones and ones you take on occasion), formula or blenderized tube feeds, feeding pump, battery and charger, backpack, dressing supplies etc. 
  • Don’t forget the items you may not use everyday such as medications that you take as needed, and dressing supplies
  • To make things easier at airport security, pack your medical supplies in a separate suitcase. This will make inspection run smoother. 
  • Make sure you have all the supplies and feed that you will need during your flight in your carry on baggage. It’s a good idea to pack extra in your carry on in case your checked baggage gets delayed or lost
  • Consider the timing of your flight and if it will be during a feed or multiple feed times.
  • Don’t forget a power outlet adapter for your feeding pump and any other equipment. Power outlets may be different at your destination
  • If you use blenderized tube feeds, you’ll have to consider how you’re going to keep them frozen for travel or how you will prepare them at your destination. 
  • If you have blenderized tube feeding, you can freeze it and pack it in a cooler with ice packs to keep them frozen during travel
  • Figure out what you would need for your entire time away – and then pack extra! You don’t want to be stuck without food or supplies
  • You can consider getting your supplies shipped to your destination if that is feasible. This option can end up being more costly, but it may be worth it for longer trips

Plan for possible complications or emergencies

  • Know where medical facilities and hospitals are at your destination in case of complications or emergencies during your trip.
  • Can your medical team connect you with a medical team at your destination before you travel?
  • Consider getting medical insurance and cancellation or interruption insurance in case you need treatment or need to cut the trip short

At this point, you’ve considered what may come up during your trip and you’ve got detailed lists and plans in place. 

Before you do a final pack, let’s talk about airport security so you get a better idea of how to organise all your equipment and supplies. 

Navigating Airport Security

This can certainly be a daunting part of the process. You’ll want to make sure you’ve considered all the security requirements for flying with a feeding tube so you don’t run into any roadblocks at the airport.

How to pack your supplies

There are particular regulations that you’ll need to be aware of when you’re packing your equipment and supplies for the trip.

Although there isn’t a rule for this, families that I’ve talked to have recommended keeping all medical supplies including medication and formula in separate suitcases from your personal items. This will make inspection easier.

Your medical equipment and supplies generally do not count towards your baggage maximums. This includes your feeding pump, oxygen tank, CPAP machine, suction machine as well as mobility devices. 

Tube feeding families also said they had no problem carrying on coolers to keep their blenderized tube feeding formula frozen during travel.

Check with your airline before travel to confirm any particular restrictions. 

Give yourself lots of extra time. You may need to take extra time with security if they have to inspect your equipment, supplies and feeding formula. 

Regulations and documentation

Countries may vary in their regulations so it’s best to check the travel authority in your country and your destination country.

In the United States, there is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) which sets out regulations for travel and has specific rules for medication, medical equipment, and how you can transport your tube feeding formulas.

The TSA recommends you contact them at least 72 hours (or 3 business days) prior to travelling. Let them know you will be travelling with medical supplies and request the assistance of a Passenger Support Specialist (PSS) at the checkpoint. 

At the checkpoint, you can show your TSA notification card (which you can get before travel) or use a letter from your doctor that details your medical needs. 

People who I’ve talked to about travelling with a feeding tube say it’s helpful to have a doctor’s note to explain why you have all the supplies and equipment. Others have said they were never questioned about their equipment and had no issues.

I think it’s better to be safe than sorry here and get a doctor’s note in case.

Liquids and Medication

When it comes to carrying liquids, the TSA has a regulation called the  3-1-1 rule.

The “3” refers to the size of each individual container of liquid, which must be less than 3.4 oz. All of your containers must fit into 1 quart-sized bag, and each passenger can have 1 of these bags. 

The TSA has a “3-1-1 Liquids Rule Exemption” that allows you to have larger amounts of liquid if they are medically necessary but you have to declare them to the TSA officer at the checkpoint. 

This exemption allows you to carry on your medically necessary liquids (feed formula, medications) if they are required during your flight and/or at your destination, and not available either at the airport after the checkpoint or at your final destination. 

Freezer packs are also exempt if you are using them to cool your formula. So if you use your own blenderized tube feeding formula, you can freeze it and pack it in a cooler with ice packs for transport.

In Canada, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) regulates air travel requirements. They have a similar rule to the TSA 3-1-1 rule. 

In Canada, liquids and non-solid food in your carry-on must be 100 ml/100 g (3.4 oz) or less. Your liquid containers must all fit in one clear, resealable plastic bag no more than 1 L in capacity. Security must be able to see the contents of the bag, so it has to be transparent.

The CATSA states that prescription and essential non-prescription medications are exempt from the rule, but you should be ready to show them to the screening officer. 

Unfortunately their website does not specifically say that enteral formulas are exempt. However, they do say that baby formula for children under 2 is exempt.

I reached out via their website to clarify allowances for tube feeding formula and blenderized tube feeding formula but unfortunately never heard back. 

Before you travel, reach out to your travel authority and airline to confirm their regulations as these may be subject to change. 

You did it! You made it through security, and now you can confidently board the plane!

In-flight considerations

At this point, you’ve got to your seat (which can be a feat if you have other medical complexities and you require other equipment such as mobility devices or oxygen etc). 

But now you’re on your way!

You’ve planned and packed everything you could need but here are a few other things to consider during the flight.

  • The humidity level in an airplane is lower than in your home so you can tend to get dehydrated while flying.
  • Make sure you pack plenty of water to provide extra flushing  (if it’s medically appropriate for you) so you stay well hydrated. Again, it’s a good idea to pack extra in case of delays. 
  • If you use a feeding pump, make sure that the battery is fully charged for the flight and if you have an extra battery, pack it in your carry-on baggage.
  • Do you have a protocol for unblocking your tube on the flight and the required materials (eg. enzymes) for this? 
  • Can you administer your tube feed in your seat or do you need somewhere else on the plane? Speak to the flight attendant to see if there is somewhere with a little more space or privacy if you need it. 
  • Do you need to clean your supplies during the flight, or are you using single use items? You may be able to rinse bags or syringes on the plane but you likely won’t have somewhere to thoroughly wash them. 
  • You may want to have a wet bag with used supplies that can be properly cleaned at your destination
  • If you have formula or medication that needs to stay cold, ask the flight attendants for ice to keep your cooler cold

Destination considerations

Determining where you’ll be staying and what amenities are available is also a part of your planning process. When you arrive, all you have to do is relax and enjoy your getaway. 

When you are researching where you will go and where you will stay, you should consider space for storing equipment and supplies, facilities for preparing feed and also for cleaning supplies.

Travelling out of your own country may present some different challenges in terms of medical coverage but also for availability of supplies, equipment and formula should you run out or have technical difficulties. 

Consider checking ahead to see if your formula, medication and medical supplies are available at your destination. For shorter trips, this may not be of concern as you can take what you need with you.

If you blend your own feeds and plan to do so on your trip, you will want to have your blender with you. This could be considered medical equipment if you have it specified in your doctor’s note. 

If you are going to pre-blend all your food before you go, then you will need to make sure there is an appropriate size fridge and/or freezer to keep your food from spoiling.

Practical tips from Travelling Tubies

I talked with tube feeding families and individuals that have flown with a feeding tube so I could share some practical advice with you!

Since I’m a dietitian helping people with blenderized tube feeding, much of the feedback I have is from families travelling with blenderized tube feeding formula that they’ve prepared themselves. 

Some families shared specific supplies that they used and were helpful. I am not affiliated with these products, but I am simply sharing what others have recommended or found useful.

Most families reported positive experiences with TSA and going through security so long as they called ahead of time, had proper documentation and medical equipment and supplies were packed separately. 

Some say that their formula was not checked or tested, while others did have theirs checked, tested. So always give yourself extra time for this step. 

Families often prepared their blenderized food prior to their travel and froze it in reusable bags, such as the Bolee Bag

They transported frozen formula in these bags, and in a cooler. They were able to carry the cooler on to the plane with them as medical supplies. For a longer flight, they asked the flight attendants to refill the ice in the cooler to make sure everything remained frozen.

Another helpful tool is the FreeArm to hang your tube feeding bag (gravity or pump) or syringe from during travel and at your destination. It’s a small, portable IV pole that can be clipped on anywhere and is great for the plane.

The FreeArm tube feeding assistant is use on an airplane. A portable, clip on IV pole holding a feeding syringe, attached to feeding tube extension.
The FreeArm tube feeding assistant in action. Photo used with permission from FreeArm.

Some people travelling on longer trips, took their blenders with them as medical supplies without any issues.

Overall the feedback was positive from families that have travelled with a feeding tube and once they did it once, they felt more confident the next time.

Key Takeaways

Flying with a feeding tube and other medical complexities takes a lot of preparation and planning. 

If you work with your medical team beforehand and make detailed plans, you can have success and enjoy a getaway safely.

Doing some research beforehand will help you feel confident in your travels and reduce stress along the way. 

With the right approach and mindset, you can enjoy the adventure of exploring new destinations, even with a feeding tube and other medical complexities.

As with anything new, tube feeding can be overwhelming. Here at the blending dietitian, I want to help you feel at ease with everything tube feeding and provide helpful, practical tips that you can use to make your life with a feeding tube easier.

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