When I was 23 years old, I naturally birthed my first child, my sweet Chava Rachel. I gazed down at her in disbelief—this gorgeous little girl was mine. A perfectly round head covered in damp, dark locks, tiny fingernails almost translucent pink, as if she’d had a manicure in the womb.
As we struggled to latch those first few hours after birth, my lactation-consultant mother led me through skin-to-skin, attempts at biological nurturing, and the baby crawl. No luck. Eventually we called in for a hospital-grade pump. As my frustration mounted, my mother whispered furtively, “Let’s get out of here. Tell them you’re nursing just fine, and let’s go home.”
She and I agreed that a hospital was no place to learn to breastfeed a baby. It wasn’t until Chava’s second day of life that she finally latched on. At my mother’s suggestion, I got on all fours and lowered my breast into Chava’s mouth—success! It was painful for a few days, but with the visit of another lactation consultant we were able to get on the right path.
My daughter was what my mother referred to as a “high needs” child—just like I had been and still was, I was reminded smartly. I had been rewarded with a child who was just as whiny and needy as I had been—my mother’s revenge on a daughter who had never let her have a moment’s peace.
Chava stayed attached to my breast for most of her first year. She had no interest in table foods, no tolerance for her loving grandparents from Long Island who “didn’t mind” if she cried when they held her. The first time I turned on the vacuum, she was inconsolable—it was a chore I didn’t mind having to give up. It wasn’t until my daughter was almost 15 months old that she began to gain nourishment from yogurt, Cheerios, and bananas—other foods that most 6-month-olds would have gladly gobbled up.
I felt pressure to “socialize” my little girl, so I planned playdates with other stay-at-home moms. But they were a complete failure. Chava didn’t want to play with other children. She didn’t want to sit at the table and share a snack. A short trip to the local park would result in an ear-splitting heartrending tantrum that could only be solved by nursing. I was very self-conscious of being the only one nursing their gangly child in the library, post office, grocery store, and doctor’s office. But it was the only thing that worked. Breastfeeding was the calm and serenity that my daughter craved constantly. To deny her was to wreak havoc on the precious few moments of respite in our day.
Over the years, Chava grew, but her language was sparse. She interspersed her words with a homemade language of gobble-di-gook to fill up the spaces she knew shouldn’t be there. Transitions were a nightmare: getting in the car, getting out of the car, shoe shopping, trying a new food, settling down for the night—each was met with a cacophony of screams that had people around me whispering “spoiled.” I felt like a terrible parent.
Thank God for breastfeeding. When Chava screeched in the bathtub, I climbed in and put her to my breast. We sat in the shallow pool of warm water as I gently rubbed shampoo into her scalp and rinsed it clean.
At 3 years old, we noticed Chava’s right eye turning in. A trip to the pediatric eye doctor revealed that she needed glasses. The pair we picked out were purple and shiny. Of course, she refused to wear them. And so, I pulled out the only tool that I had ever used with success—my breasts. I kindly and firmly told my little 3-year-old that if she wanted to nurse, she had to wear her glasses. She refused adamantly, until realizing that I meant business! For the first few days, she only wore her glasses when she was nursing. Then it became routine. Chava would ask to nurse, put on her glasses, and forget about them. For the very first time, she began to see the world clearly. Her language improved, but there was no mistaking that she marched to the beat of a very different drummer.
I put off schooling until Chava turned 5 years old. She attended a half-day program at our synagogue’s nursery school. Most mornings were filled with tears. Any gentle urging by the teachers to join in class activities was met with a forceful “NO!” accompanied by folded arms and a stomping foot or a full-blown tantrum with growls and flailing feet. As weeks passed, Chava would occasionally consent to sitting at the coloring table, only utilizing the purple markers that matched her purple shirt, purple skirt, purple tights, purple shoes, and purple glasses.
In her own way, Chava was showing improvement. Instead of crying every day, there were periods of acceptance. With encouragement, she branched out to include the color blue into her artistic spectrum. But I was relieved when preschool ended. The director of the school told me that I was not giving Chava the proper tools to learn and grow; she was “babied too much,” and “always got her way.” She told me to set a firm example backed up with punishable consequences. I didn’t agree and still don’t.
Then, two momentous events occurred—my daughter weaned, and she was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, on the autism spectrum.
All of a sudden, so many things made sense–Chava’s intense mood swings, complete resistance to change, inability to deal with transitions, and lack of eye contact. As a parent, I wanted to do whatever I could—specialists, therapy. My own parents, as loving grandparents, initially found it difficult to accept that Chava had a diagnosed problem. But with time came acceptance and understanding. My mother sat down with me one day and said, “You know, Chana, scientific studies show that breastfeeding positively impacts children with autism. It increases the social response and bonding. Kids with special needs are susceptible to abuse because they can’t be calmed down. Breastfeeding probably saved her life.”
The complex composition of mother’s milk, paired with the specialized delivery method, had been protecting and healing my daughter. I will never know how deeply Chava could have been affected by autism if she hadn’t nursed for six years. But I do know my daughter is special. She cuddles her dolls, asking me to breastfeed them. Chava displays physical signs of bonding and maternal behaviors toward her little brother and cousins, outward affection that is often absent from individuals on the autism spectrum.
Every significant event in Chava’s first few years of life was made more tolerable, palatable, and enjoyable by our breastfeeding relationship. Breastfeeding saved my daughter’s life—and it also saved mine.