My daughter was born two weeks early and was given the label of Low Birth Weight (LBW), weighing in at 6 lbs. My dream was to breastfeed exclusively, but this dream was put on hold by my worries about my daughter’s size and my lack of strength after a difficult labor. I decided to nurse and then supplement with formula if she was still hungry. After two months of steady growth, the doctors calmed down, and this helped me calm down too.

One day, a friend and neighbor came by and asked me how theAfter two months of steady growth the doctors calmed down nursing was going. I told her I was supplementing and thought that I did not have enough milk. She encouraged me to breastfeed exclusively and told me that the more I nursed, the more milk I would have. I decided to try. I nursed night and day for a week—I am not exaggerating! I actually enjoyed all this bonding time with my daughter. It was like a time-out, just to work on developing our mother/daughter relationship. My body started to produce more milk, and I was able to attend to my daughter every time she showed signs of hunger.

Now let’s fast-forward a few years. I started to learn new nutrition counseling methods and wanted to practice with my own daughter. On our last visit to the Well Baby Clinic, I asked the nurse to print out my daughter’s growth card, which showed every time I took my daughter to the nurse, her weight, and her weight percentile. At first glance, I could not help but notice how my daughter’s weight had dipped at the fourth-month and sixth-month visit. This seemed to confirm my earlier worries—I knew I didn’t have enough milk!

A couple days later, I sat down with the raw data I was given from the nurse and decided to plot it on a standard growth chart for girls from ages 0-24 months. (In Israel, the doctors don’t plot the growth curve for you.) I also reviewed the material I was studying and read, “Breastfed babies may shift downward as much as a percentile curve in weight between 3 and 12 months.”1 I breathed a sigh of relief. That’s exactly what happened to my daughter. Once we transitioned to solids, my daughter’s weight slowly jumped up from percentile curve to percentile curve. My daughter is still thin and tall (no big surprise, both my husband and I are as well), but for the last few years, she has consistently remained in the 60th percentile.

I learned that children have a natural way of growing that is right for them. The fact that your child is short and stocky or tall and slender is determined mostly by genetics, not your wishes. If you provide healthy options for your children and let them decide how much they want to eat, you generally don’t need to worry about normal growth—it will happen.2

And as I learned about a child’s normal growth and development, I could not help but compare it to my own stages of growth and development as a ba’alat teshuvah, a returnee to observant Judaism.

During your child’s early years, feeding and development are inseparable. According to the Developmental-Structural Theory of Stanley Greenspan, the first stage of development, homeostasis, is the time when a baby reaches a stable state of equilibrium. At this stage, a parent should learn to read and respond to her baby’s cues of tiredness and hunger. Feeding will go best when your baby is quiet and alert. During this stage, the baby learns to wake himself up, ask to be fed, and stay awake long enough to eat as much as he needs. 3

This first stage of development is similar to the time when I was I just becoming religious and had much to learn and get used to. I began to observe Shabbat, kashrut and other mitzvahs and put themI began to observe Shabbat and other mitzvahs into practice in my life. It took a considerable amount effort to make these lifestyle changes.

The second stage of development, attachment,occurs around two months, when the baby begins to smile and take delight in your presence. Healthy attachment is encouraged during breastfeeding when you share control with your baby by feeding him when he wants to be fed. This makes him feel loved and understood; he is seen, heard and cared for.4

The stage of attachmentparallels the struggles I faced after a few years of being a ba’alat teshuvah. During this stage, I felt determined to stay connected to G‑d even as I faced the challenges of being a newcomer to Israel and struggling with infertility. Although my growth seemed slow and I might have even fallen off of the percentile curve of success, those years were a time when I was nursing my attachment with G‑d.

When attachment goes well, the infant develops a sense of trust and confidence and is ready for the next stage of development, called separation and individuation. During this stage, which begins around eight months, a baby wants to start feeding himself with finger foods and drinking from a toddler cup. A baby develops this autonomy when you share control, not letting the baby control you or you control the baby. At this stage, a parent must create structure and set limits by having regular meals and snacks.5

This stage is comparable to the time when I started to feel more confident in Israel as I became fluent in Hebrew and, with G‑d’s loving grace, became a mother. While going through this stage, I realized that through the challenges I faced and by staying strong in my faith, I could now be more sympathetic toward others and encourage them on their journey back to Torah.

The stages of development have been extremely helpful for me to understand the fundamentals of building healthy feeding relationships with children in order to help foster normal growth. Most importantly, I learned that normal growth can also have slumps along the way. For a baby, these slumps might be natural due to breastfeeding. A parent should monitor her baby’s growth with the help of medical professionals, but should also know that there are many benefits to breastfeeding, including encouraging healthy attachment and developing a healthy feeding relationship.

There are many benefits to breastfeeding

Similarly, in my own life, I’ve seen that my slumps have fostered much personal growth and greater connection with G‑d. As Chassidut expresses it, “When a person needs to reach a new level in the service of G‑d, he first needs to have a descent before he ascends, because the descent is for the purpose of ascending.”6 May all of our stages of descent, whether in raising healthy children or in our own service of G‑d, always propel us forward to our next stage of ascent.