It was an incredibly creative and busy summer at Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies. Thanks to partners around the state, we took the LIFTS project to the next level with an annual publication and online resource guide. And we were lucky enough to share this work with those collaborators during our “LIFTS Launch Party”! Contributors to the magazine read their pieces, as we hope to lift up the stories of mothers and caregivers around Montana. We shared the “Look Closer Campaign,” working to break the stigma of helping mothers in recovery. And then we shared a demo of the LIFTS Online Guide in action, showing how the website can be used by parents around the state.
If you weren’t able to join us, or want to share the good news with others, watch the recording of our meeting below:
April Charlo grew up on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana, a postcard-perfect landscape of glacial mountains and expansive valleys. When she got pregnant at 38, she thought she’d have a birth rife with traditional elements—nature, a teepee, and songs. Like so many things in life though, birth can’t be planned, and April’s early years of motherhood did not go as she expected either.
“The second I got pregnant with Chief I was super anxious because I have a friend that lost a baby at 5 months and I didn’t know what I would do mental health-wise if I was to miscarry and have to tell everyone. These stigmas were really ingrained in me early on, that the world doesn’t need to know how I feel around a miscarriage and mental health. I didn’t want to tell anyone [I was pregnant] till I got past the 5-month mark because I didn’t want people to have to feel sorry for me if something went wrong,“ says April.
When her son Chief was born, she didn’t have the experience she thought she would have. Since she was a teenager, April dreamed of having a baby of her own and was convinced she would be the best parent she could be. It turned out it wasn’t that simple.
“All my friends disappeared. I couldn’t go anywhere. I would put him in his car seat and he would scream. It was just such, such an anxious time. I would go into fight or flight, definitely a dysregulated, hyperarousal state where I would just shut down if I had to go to a store or anything. It was really intense,” says April.
She didn’t realize she was experiencing postpartum depression—a condition affecting up to 20 percent of women in the first weeks after giving birth that is classified as a serious mental health issue.
“Postpartum depression was completely hidden in my community. At thirteen I went from playing with dolls to not being able to wait to have my own baby. In the  years between then and when I had Chief, I thought there was no way that was going to happen to me. I wanted this baby more than anything. More than anyone else who ever wanted their baby,” said April, choked with tears.
Postpartum depression manifests uniquely in every woman, but common symptoms include depressed mood or mood swings, excessive crying, difficulty bonding with your baby, withdrawing from family and friends, change in appetite, changes in sleep, overwhelming fatigue, reduced interest and pleasure in activities you used to enjoy, intense irritability or anger, hopelessness, feelings of shame or guilt, diminished ability to think clearly, and thoughts of harming yourself or your baby.
For most women in America, and Native American communities in particular , postpartum depression comes along with a whole lot of stigma.
“It’s very hidden because it’s very embarrassing. In any culture, how this affects anyone of any color or status—it’s the same. It’s the same fear of being judged or ostracized. It’s the same fear of sharing the intrusive thoughts with anyone beyond yourself. What will that mean? Are they going to take my kids if I share these intrusive thoughts? Postpartum depression doesn’t discriminate,” says April.
Unlike the “baby blues,” which typically clear up on their own after a few days, postpartum depression can last for anywhere from a few months to several years.
“I didn’t even know that it was postpartum depression,” says April through tears. “I thought I had some unique condition. It never occurred to me that it was postpartum depression. My brain chemistry had me so locked in tunnel vision of just getting through the day. Maybe tomorrow I’ll kill myself. If I can’t make it through tomorrow, I’ll kill myself and my son. It still shakes me to my core.”
April attributes much of her community’s silent struggle with postpartum depression to the lack of traditional knowledge being handed down—a paradigm that has been pervasive since the colonization of the Americas when boarding schools forced Native children out of their homelands and disrupted their chain of cultural heritage.
Despite past struggles, the dialogue around Native American prenatal and postpartum care is gaining traction. With more gatherings and conversations happening in public forums than ever before, Native women are finally finding their voices on the issue.
“Once I told my story it was like story after story after story of ‘I had that.’ It tells me that our community, my peers (older and younger) do not feel safe sharing it. The dialogue has slowly started on social media which is great to see,” says April.
Postpartum depression is common and while sharing your story can be hard, reaching out for help is important. Unintentional overdose and suicide are the top causes of death in mothers in the first year postpartum and are completely preventable with the proper help.
Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies seeks to support all moms of any ethnicity in their journey to finding their way through postpartum mood disorders.
To learn more about April’s story of postpartum depression and ways that you can seek help if you find yourself experiencing symptoms, watch the video above.
A panel of lawmakers and state officials on Thursday held an “emergency” meeting to authorize a temporary expansion of federal benefits to help low-income women and their families purchase additional fruit and vegetables, just in time for a June deadline that had slipped beyond the notice of the Legislature as it works to spend a billion-plus dollars in COVID-19 aid from the U.S. government.
Under the expanded program, Montanans who receive Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — or WIC — benefits will see an increase in their payments for produce up to $35 a month for a four-month period ending September 30. States that opted-in to the expanded benefit, a group that includes Montana, needed to take advantage of the opportunity by the beginning of the four-month term in June.
The monthly cash-value voucher for fruit and vegetable purchases is in normal times $9 per child and $11 for women who are pregnant, postpartum or breastfeeding. In other words, the boost, funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, can more than triple the fruit and vegetable voucher for some who qualify. Montana’s WIC participation hovers around 14,000 people; around 10,000 could see the expanded fruit-and-vegetable payments, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services said.
The annual income threshold for a family of four to receive WIC benefits is $48,470.
“It’s really important,” said Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, who sits on the Health Advisory Commission that approved the payments Thursday. “I think of pregnant women, infants and children being able to put more fresh fruit and vegetables into their bellies, and that’s a really good thing for this summer.”
The commission is one of four steering groups that were formed under House Bill 632, legislation implementing and authorizing payments under the American Rescue Plan Act.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture notified states of the ability to take advantage of the expanded funds in March. But the Legislature didn’t specifically authorize the benefit during the session, and the ARPA advisory commissions aren’t slated to meet regularly until June 3, by which point it would be too late to take advantage of the opportunity.
The Health Advisory Commission wasn’t scheduled to meet Thursday until the Montana Food Bank Network, the Montana Association of WIC Agencies and Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies notified lawmakers on the committee, the governor and DPHHS director Adam Meier that the state still had to authorize the benefits soon or else become the only state to opt-in to the expansion and not take advantage of it.
The Food Bank Network learned last week that local WIC clinics were holding off on issuing June benefits as they didn’t know how much of the fruit and vegetable payments to allocate, said Lorianne Burhop, the network’s policy director. Administering payments can be a time-intensive process as clinics distribute individual benefit packages to WIC-eligible families in the region, so the clinics needed guidance soon in order to begin sending out payments.
“Nearly one in six kids in this state live in a food insecure home,” Burhop said. “WIC reaches kids at their most critical points in development.”
That outreach effort began last week, meaning that the meeting to approve the funds came together in a handful of days.
“We never intended to hold up the process — we wanted to make sure that pregnant women, children and infants get fresh vegetables and fruit,” Caferro said. “The way the human services ARPA funding works, there’s so many wonderful opportunities to strengthen families and so we missed this.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 24, 2021 to clarify that both lawmakers and administration officials serve on the Health Advisory Commission.
Have you wondered what it would be like to be a baby born during the pandemic? How about a mother giving birth alone or nearly so? New parents and their babies are facing greater risks than ever.
Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies (HMHB-MT) knows the greatest impact of stress on the human brain is when still developing in the womb. And the first five years of life are critical, setting the foundation for a stable and healthy life. This pandemic has brought enormous amounts of stress to parents and other caretakers. Workplace changes, child care shortages and a loss of the natural web of social support. Nothing looks or feels familiar. Surveys of Montana parents during the COVID-19 pandemic tell us that parents are struggling to meet their children’s basic needs and provide them with safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments. Brain development of infants and young children can suffer without these supports.
Fortunately, we know that there are ways to help combat this added stress. HMHB-MT is providing families the support they are asking for during this time, just like we have been for the past 36 years. We use data from the parent surveys and state need assessments. We activate our state and local networks built by years of programming, advocacy and policy work for pregnant moms and families with young children. We apply best-practice solutions to complex social challenges to ensure that our work aligns with prevention science and protective factor research.
During this pandemic, HMHB-MT has leveraged resources to support resiliency in families. We launched the Safe Sleep Campaign with a message that parents still have the ability to keep their baby safe when asleep, even though so many other factors are out of their control. We helped meet basic needs by distributing essential items: cribs, car seats, diapers, wipes, formula, breast feeding supplies and more to every reservation and 24 counties. We continue to provide training on postpartum depression so moms will have access to care they need. HMHB-MT hosted its 3rd Annual Perinatal Mental Health Conference, virtually, in November with over 150 participants from across the state. And we helped advocate for an additional $50 million dollars of CARES act funding designated to help support childcare.
We find ourselves facing many great challenges. HMHB-MT is here to make sure that as a state we never lose sight of the fact that what happens today will impact our smallest citizens in the largest way. We all have an enormous responsibility to act with them in mind.
We hope you will join us and donate today to ensure that families have what they need to be resilient through this pandemic and beyond. Although our work and our lives may be stressful and look different, coming together to make a difference still looks the same. It is generations to come that are depending on us to get this right.
This opinion was signed by Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Montana Executive Director Brie MacLaurin, RN; board chair Kelly Minnehan-Galt; and board member David Lechner, M.D.
1500 Pack ’n Play cribs distributed; new educational materials created
Lt. Governor Mike Cooney, Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) Director Sheila Hogan, Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies-MT (HMHB-MT) Executive Director Brie Oliver, and several public and private partners announced today the launch of the Safe Sleep Initiative to promote safe sleep practices for all Montana babies.
“Montana’s children deserve the best start in life possible, and promoting safe sleep practices is crucial,” Lt. Gov. Cooney said. “This effort is designed to provide parents, grandparents and anyone in care of an infant with the best information possible when it comes to safe sleep.”
Lt. Gov. Cooney said the Initiative is the result of meetings with stakeholders from across the state and focus groups of Montana families. “Their insight into the current landscape of safe sleep information, real-life sleeping practices, and recommendations for public messaging were critical to creating a unique message for Montana,” he said.
The effort includes information on evidence-based safe sleep practices for infants and provides educational materials to families all across Montana through new materials provided through the Safe Sleep: Learn, Plan, and Provide education and media campaign materials. The campaign doesn’t ignore the realities of bedsharing and instead promotes open conversation and tips for reducing risks associated with unsafe sleeping situations. It also respects cultural differences in traditional sleep positions.
Focus groups and stakeholders agreed the public message should be focus on harm reduction methods of safe sleep. “The reality is, co-sleeping happens, and so this really examines how to promote safe sleep practices in the best possible way to give parents the information and tools they need to keep their children safe,” said DPHHS Director Sheila Hogan. “This approach to safe sleep aims to open the gates of honest communication between families and their providers, resulting in safer sleep and a reduction in infant deaths within sleepenvironments.”
In addition to the public messaging efforts, HMHB-MT has distributed 1500 cribs since December 2018 to Montana families in need of a safe place for their baby to sleep. The crib comes with education about safe sleep, a book, sleeper, and fitted sheet.
Oliver said many times these cribs are delivered to the home by a public health home visitor, which is an added level of support and often leads to helping families access other supports during this vulnerable time.
“It’s important that we support and provide new parents with the materials and information they need to be successful, and to ensure all children are given the best start in life,” Oliver said.
The Pack ’n Play cribs were purchased with public and private funds from DPHHS, Montana Children’s Trust Fund, and HMHB-MT.
Oliver is encouraging other interested organizations to join the cause. “We are thankful to all those who have made generous contributions to this effort,” she said. “It’s amazing to know there’s so much support for Montana families, and we hope to continue this effort. It’s our goal to have more partners join the Safe Sleep Initiative to give infants a safe and healthy start.”
Safe Sleep is the third pillar under the DPHHS overarching First Years Initiative that was launched three years ago. The initiative was born after analysis showed children under two comprised most child deaths in Montana, and the majority of those fatalities involved infants in unsafe sleep environments.
The First Years Initiative focuses on providing targeted resources, education, and services during the early, critical period in the lives of children and their parents—pregnancy, the weeks and months after birth, and extending through the first years of a child’s life.
Oliver said her organization already distributes the Pack ’n Plays year-round on a limited basis. However, she noted this new funding quadrupled their current efforts. For HMHB-MT, the initiative spotlights a very important issue. “This is a significant investment in the lives of newborns all across Montana,”she said. “This is not just a basic need item, but a crucial one. It not only increases safe sleep, but also leads to better family outcomes.”
The 1500 cribs have been distributed to various locations throughout Montana, including local Child and Family Services Division, Women, Infants and Children (WIC) clinics, Tribal health programs, home visiting locations, American Indian reservations and other partner organizations. The cribs were distributed with other safe sleep materials, at no cost to families in need, through referrals made to local public health departments or early childhood specialists.
Oliver noted that cribs are proven to provide a safe sleep environment for infants. She said that by providing them at no cost removes a barrier for many new parents, plus they’re portable. “They can easily be transported, so where a baby goes, the crib can follow,” she said. “This is especially convenient when friends or family are caring for a child but may not own one themselves.”
Organizations or individuals interested in partnering with the Safe Sleep Initiative are encouraged to contact Stephanie Morton, Program Manager at HMHB-MT, (Stephanie@hmhb-mt.org) or call the office at (406) 449-8611. HMHB-MT also maintains a list of locations where cribs are available.
Date: June 24, 2020 Contact: Jon Ebelt, Public Information Officer, DPHHS, (406) 444-0936, (406) 461-3757, firstname.lastname@example.org
For months, Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Executive Director, Brie Oliver, would come into her office, sit down at her desk, prepare to dive into work for the day and glance up at her whiteboard. The words ‘Mother Love’ stared back at her, giving a little wink as if to say, “hey, I’m still here waiting to get off of this whiteboard and out into the world…” Brie nodded back not knowing exactly how to make that happen but patiently knowing it would, when the time was right.
Then, one day, it did. Through the magic of a few aligned circumstances, Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies of MT was awarded a mini-grant by the Maternal Mental Health Task force of the Greater Helena Area Early Childhood Coalition. Suddenly, HMHB was given the means to focus time, energy and passion into launching Mother Love, a safe space for families to connect, share stories, creatively express their experiences (both struggles and triumphs) and, ultimately, to heal and thrive in community.
So far, Mother Love has launched a podcast and hosted two healing arts events at The Holter Museum of Art in the heart of downtown Helena, Montana. Although things are still just getting off the ground, Mother Love has already begun to work its magic, helping moms and families reflect on their experiences and work through sticking points together.
At the two February Mother Love Stitch & Story events, moms from all different ages and backgrounds gathered together to work on their own simple embroidery projects, stitching the words, ‘You are enough’ into colorful fabrics that will remind them of this important idea in their daily lives. One stitch at a time, a circle of women sat and listened attentively while they took turns sharing birth stories, self-care challenges, sibling rivalry woes and chuckling about the silly things people sometimes say to new moms. They touched on ways their babies had transformed them, taught them how to be calm, patient and resilient and how to surrender and go with the flow even when it seems impossible to do so. At times, stitches got tangled and moms got stuck in their embroidery flow. When this happened, another mom was quick to offer help untangling knots and smoothing the threaded mess, like moms do.
On the first episode of the podcast, Trista Vonada, a local social worker and mental health professional bravely shared her story of postpartum depression. If you’d care to have a listen, click here. This podcast will be an ongoing project and the conversations and content will vary but will mostly focus on birth stories, maternal mental health, the transition into motherhood and what it is really like to create and maintain a healthy family.
We are so grateful to have the opportunity to introduce Mother Love to the world and to reach more Montana moms and families in these new ways. If you’re interested in learning more about HMHB and donating to the organization, please visit our website at www.hmhb-mt.org.
Yesterday morning, my good friend (and fellow mama) was recapping her morning. She exuberantly recounted all that had taken place in the past 12ish hours: last minute book report that required modeling clay and her participation in molding said modeling clay into a character’s face, strategically relocating the elf on the shelf, playing the role of tooth fairy, letting the dog out several times in the night due to a canine tummy bug, getting her daughter to school early for student council and making an extra trip to the grocery store to supply holiday treats for a class event. As I listened to her run through this very normal but highly stressful list, I felt deep compassion and empathetic anxiety for her. I felt my chest seize up and my breath go shallow. I thought to myself, Dang, that’s a whole lot to handle before even coming to work for the day. And I was so glad to be the one to listen and breathe and laugh with her about just how ridiculously overwhelming it all can be. If I hadn’t been there to see and hear her, all of this would have gone completely unrecognized. It would just have melted into the giant, steaming cauldron of stuff moms do behind the scenes. And she would have done what we do – she would have mustered up the strength and stamina from that deep mama reservoir and kept on truckin’. By the way, she forgot to leave the tooth money under the pillow and had to get very creative in the midst of all of this in order to redeem the tooth fairy’s reputation. Because, you know, she didn’t already have enough on her plate.
So, when there’s so much going on in parenting land, a good friend is good medicine. Pour out the crazy that might be trapped inside. Drink a glass of water while looking out the window. Find a deeper breath or two. Laugh or cry. Express the hard, not just the good. And, if you don’t have access to a compassionate ear you may have to try to be that for yourself. Take stock of all you’ve managed and navigated in the past little chunk of time and give yourself the gift of recognition. Give yourself your own, dang that’s a lot. You deserve it.
Claire Larson is the Program and Communications Assistant at Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies: The Montana Coalition which is dedicated to improving the health, safety and well-being of Montana families by supporting mothers and babies, age zero to three. (Featured image captured by Michelle Gustafson.)
With funding from Blue Cross, Blue Shield, HMHB has been working on many fronts in improving healthcare for those experiencing perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) in Montana. Work continued on developing the Perinatal Screening Protocol for Primary Care Providers and a complete draft including the algorithm and narrative were presented in early December. We plan to have a final draft in December after a few finishing touches and be able to distribute the final product in 2019.
In addition to that working group, Melissa Bangs is wrapping up her work with community-based perinatal support coalitions in Missoula, Helena and the Flathead. Currently, these groups are working to find permanent homes and facilitators within their communities to ensure their long-term success. Coalitions are determining their own work plans, which include goals such as maternal mental health public awareness campaigns, education for providers and resource and referral guides.
On October 20 and 21st, HMHB in collaboration with the Clinical Psychology Department at the University of Montana, hosted The Perinatal Mental Health Conference at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort. This two-day intensive workshop will bring in national experts to help professionals working with folks in the perinatal period to identify, diagnose and treat PMADs. Over 200 folks working in the perinatal space attended and evaluations show they were overall pleased with the conference and are eager for more training.