Chava stayed attached to my breast for most of the 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 had delayed even introducing solids until 9 months of age - because even at that age, she retained the tongue-thrust reflex, spitting out peas and vomiting applesauce. She was very picky, completely wary about new smells, textures and tastes. Indeed, she was 100% breastmilk for 12 months and counting.
My in-laws and friends pressured me to "socialize" my little girl, so I planned playdates and outings with other stay-at-home moms. But they were a complete failure. Chava didn't want to play with the other children. She didn't want to sit at the table and share a snack. And honestly, those were the least of my worries - even a short trip in the car to a local park would result in a 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 appointment. But it was the only thing that worked. Breastfeeding was the calm and serenity that my daughter craved constantly - and 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 spoke only a few words, which she interspersed 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, going shoe-shopping, trying a new food, settling down for the night - each was met with an iron-fist of resilience and a cacophony of screams and wails that had people around me whispering "spoiled." I felt like a terrible parent. No matter what I did, I couldn't seem to crack her shell of insular behavior and seeming stubborness.
When Chava was 2 1/2 years old, her little brother was born. Any progress that we had made with table foods regressed as she delightedly dug into my very full milk supply. Honestly, I was so engorged with a natural abundance of over-supply that it was a relief to empty both my breasts at the same time. She began wetting her big heavy toddler diapers through to the bursting point and reverting to breast-milk pumpkin-colored poops. Nursing was a quick and easy way of satisfying the needs of both my children - simulaneously! I felt like I had discovered the cure for cancer - no tears, no screams and instant satisfaction.
Thank G-d for breastfeeding. When Chava screeched like a banshee in the bathtub, I climbed right 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. Her hair grew like a weed, requiring trims every few weeks just to keep it out of her face. I nursed her on my right while trimming her hair on the left - then we switched sides so I could even up her bangs. 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 and beautiful - and of course, she refused to wear them. New and different = transition of epic proportions that she was ill-equipped to handle. 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 then 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. I rejected the notion of a full-day kindergarten (no half-days were offered in my county), but thought that perhaps she would be ok with a morning preschool program. Honestly, she had never been away from me for more than an hour or so at a time - and that was only with a family member. I signed her up and added my little boy, Ami, to the toddler program. He was only 2 1/2 years old, but had a much milder version of the transitional issues his big sister had mastered so artfully. I figured we would give it a shot. I was terrified.
It's kind of cute to think about now, how Ami followed Chava's lead - hid under the giant caterpillar climbing structure for the entire morning and only spoke to each other. She refused the snacks that were offered, waved away the lunch. With the passing weeks, 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. 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. Further enticement resulted in a full-blown tantrum sprinkled with growls and flailing feet.
I do not know how I kept her in that program the whole year - but I do know why. In her own way, Chava was showing improvement. Instead of crying every day, there would be periods of acceptance. With encouragement, she branched out to include the color blue into her artistic spectrum. Her artwork was beautiful. Her defiance was unrivaled. I am not sure who was more relieved when preschool ended. The director of the school told me that I was not giving Chava the proper tools for her to learn and grow. That she was babied too much and always got her own way. That only by setting a firm example of proper behavior backed up by punishable consequences could she leave behind her self-absorbed inappropriate actions. I didn't believe them. I still don't.
My husband and I were in the midst of a separation that culminated in divorce. He moved back to Long Island to live in his parent's home and would travel up to Albany every other weekend to take the kids back with him. Four hours in the car one way, four hours back just two days later. It was a lot for my children to handle - but even more was that they would have to go 48 hours without breastfeeding. Subconsciously, I think it was his way to push the issue of weaning - but we had other plans. Every other weekend, Chava and Ami would snuggle underneath my arms and nurse furtively, knowing it would have to last them a long time. It was the last thing we did before we said goodbye - and it was the first thing we did when we said hello. With minimal assistance, my milk supply valiantly maintained itself throughout our bi-weekly separations. Then, two momentous events occurred within a timespan of just a few weeks - my daughter weaned. And she was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, on the autism spectrum.
Unfortunately, autism is not one of those things that can be cured with a pill. It can take so many different forms, as unique as the individuals who claim it as a part of their puzzle piece. But all of a sudden, so many things made sense - Chava's intense mood swings, complete resistance to change, inability to deal with transitions, lack of eye contact, etc. As a parent, I wanted to do everything I could for her - specialists, therapy, whatever it took. My own parents, as loving grandparents, initially found it difficult to accept that she had a diagnosed problem. Cause hey, everyone in my family is a little "quirky" and "weird" anyway, so maybe this was just her thing. 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 just can't be calmed down. Breastfeeding probably saved her life."
Mothers constantly question our own actions and motives. Am I doing what is best for my children? Should I be strict or easy-going? Do I really "deserve" a break, or should I set down my coffee to give in to the whines to fix a snack and change the tv channel? One thing I have learned to stop questioning: Breastfeeding. It's the answer. Breastfeeding fixes the boo-boos and the tantrums and the days that just won't go right - and those are just the small things that I saw everyday in my nursing relationships. What I didn't notice was that the amazingly complex and intricate composition of mother's milk, paired with the specialized delivery method had been protecting and healing my autistic daughter. I will never know how deeply Chava could have been affected by autism if she hadn't nursed for 6 years. But I do know this - my daughter understands and trusts that I know her better than anyone else in the world. She cuddles her babydolls, asks me to breastfeed them. Chava displays physical signs of bonding and maternal behaviors toward her little brother and cousins.
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.
As always, thanks for reading my breast intentions.
The Breastfeeding Lady
*Oxytocin Can Help Children with Autism
**Recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin's role in various behaviors, including... social recognition, pair bonding, anxiety, and maternal behaviors. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the "love hormone". The inability to secrete oxytocin and feel empathy is linked to sociopathy, psychopathy, narcissism... Oxytocin evokes feelings of contentment, reductions in anxiety, and feelings of calmness and security... Many studies have already shown a correlation of oxytocin with human bonding, increases in trust, and decreases in fear.
***Oxytocin Improves Brain Function