CROWN POINT | It's called liquid gold.
Nutrient-rich milk produced by lactating women is so coveted that it is a black market commodity. But there are legal and safe ways to obtain and to donate human breast milk.
Women in Northwest Indiana will soon be able to contribute to the cause.
Lactation consultant Lavawn Souther works at Crown Point Obstetrics and Gynecology, 800 W. Burrell Drive, and arranged for the office to serve as a depot for mothers interested in donating their breast milk to the Indiana Mothers' Milk Bank.
"We're hoping it's going to be a great service to a lot of people who want to donate," she said.
Souther is active with the Northwest Indiana Breastfeeding Coalition, which had invited a speaker from the milk bank for a local meeting. That's when she got the idea.
"It just hit a note with me that there's no depot in this area," Souther said.
The nearest one is at LaPorte County WIC office in Michigan City.
After gaining support from the doctors on site, she made some calls, and the milk bank arranged to have a freezer delivered to the ob/gyn office for milk storage.
For now, the white freezer sits empty, but Souther hopes to begin filling it in the next month with donations from women around the region.
"The more we talk about it, the more people get interested in it," she said.
Women who want to donate contact the milk bank and are screened. If approved, they are assigned a number. When they pump their milk, they will freeze it and bring the frozen milk to the depot.
"We simply freeze it in the freezer the milk bank gave us," Souther said.
When the supply is big enough, Souther will pack the milk in dry ice and ship it to the milk bank in Indianapolis. The milk is tested for drugs and diseases.
"They make sure the milk is safe for the babies," she said.
The milk bank serves more than 50 hospitals in the Midwest, said Carissa Hawkins, communication and outreach specialist for Indiana Mothers' Milk Bank.
"Most of our pasteurized donor human milk goes to Indiana hospitals, but we also serve hospitals in Kentucky, Illinois, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Missouri," she said.
Breast milk has antibodies that help protect babies from germs, illness and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It is linked to lower risks of health problems for babies, including ear infections, stomach viruses, asthma, obesity, childhood leukemia and necrotizing enterocolitis, which is a gastrointestinal disease in preterm infants, according to the HHS.
"It's like a medication," Souther said.
Pasteurized donor human milk is dispensed by physician prescription and ordered by hospital NICUs, Hawkins said.
"We do serve outpatients, and the cost for (pasteurized donor human milk) is $4.50 an ounce," she said. "For a premature infant in the NICU whose little body cannot properly process formula, (pasteurized donor human milk) can be a necessity."
The organization is a nonprofit, and the price of the milk pays to screen and process the milk, she said.
"The demand for breast milk donations is huge," Hawkins said. "Our supplies are never content, and we can never predict how much milk a hospital NICU might need."
Breast milk donation has had some sour press, but Souther said the controversy is tied to black market breast milk that is not tested or regulated.
"I want to get that cleared up," she said. "This has nothing to do with that. What I heard was people were selling their own milk online."
The controversy does not deal with organizations such as Indiana Mothers' Milk Bank, which uses strict screening, processing and dispensing guidelines, she said.