BILLINGS — At first glance, a Cuddling Cubs class seems like just another Zoom meeting in a growing digital world, but the connections made within the seven-week program are life-changing.
"We had one mom that was living in a cabin with her family in a very remote part of the state," said Cuddling Cubs program director Johanna Thompson. "She said, ‘You’re my only social outlet for the week.’”
That's why Cuddling Cubs was born. It's a research program designed to help brand new moms, with anything really.
"You don’t always know what they’re crying for, or if they’re hurt," said Mikaela Harbach. "Are they hungry? Do they need a diaper change? Or something as simple as, 'You're awake. What do I do with you while you're awake during this time?'”
Harbach signed up for the class a week before giving birth to her son and couldn’t wait for the weekly calls.
"Those Friday afternoons I looked forward to because I was a brand new mom at home with a newborn," Harbach said. "It was winter, I didn't feel like going anywhere, so I didn't have much interaction.”
Every participant receives a kit thanks to MOMS - a national group dedicated to providing funding and educational for maternal programs. The kit comes with helpful books, toys, even infant massage oils. That’s what one of the Cuddling Cubs classes focuses on.
"The infant massage was a big one," Harbach said. "Our son has had some health issues, so it's nice to know more as a mom what I could do to help when he's getting shots or something like that."
Thompson, an occupational therapist at Billings Clinic, came up with the program shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began. She had led an infant massage group prior to the shutdown.
"Which turned into the moms asking questions about all kinds of things," Thompson said.
Thompson knew there was a need, so she started Cuddling Cubs as a research study through Rocky Mountain College's Occupational Therapy program.
"Cuddling Cubs was my No.1 pick (to join)," said graduate student Shalyn Lackey.
Lackey recently led a group. She loves the instant connection she’s made with moms, and wants to bring this type of program to rural communities like the one she grew up in in Morrill, Nebraska.
"I have a lot of friends who just recently had a baby or are pregnant, and a lot of them are living on farms or ranches," Lackey said. "It can be pretty isolating, and that can lead to anxiety and depression."
"Having a support system is incredible after kids," added grad student Madison Leidig. "Not very many have that, especially in rural areas."
In just its third year, Cuddling Cubs has already helped over 100 new mothers. Thompson says the key is just getting them into the door...er...chat room.
"How can we provide safety so that moms can ask each other really personal questions and bounce ideas off of each other and admit that they’re struggling?" Thompson asked. "I think a lot of times, it’s hard to admit that life is hard.”
But maybe now, a little easier.