A polar bear mom rests while her two cubs play

Photo: Meril Darees / Polar Bears International

Top Mom and Cub Facts

By Alysa McCall, Staff Scientist



01 Feb 2024

As I write this, my own little cub tears around the house, demanding water and snacks and attention. She’s up and down and up and down and up … I am tired but at the same time can recognize how privileged I am. My daughter has an excellent chance of surviving to adulthood, and I’m fortunate to have all the conveniences of modern life at my fingertips to help me raise her—from grocery stores and indoor heating to FaceTiming with Nana. I can offer books or toys, keep our home safe, and turn on Baby Shark to distract for a desperately needed minute. Plus, so much coffee.

Polar bear moms have no such support. Not even close.

All moms work hard, but polar bears are undoubtedly some of the hardest working single moms. Here are some key facts about polar bear families: 

1. Polar bear moms have one of the longest fasting periods in the animal kingdom.

A polar bear mom and her cub snuggle

Photo: Shannon Curtis / Polar Bears International

  • After feeding all winter, polar bears in seasonal ice areas like Hudson Bay come ashore in the summer.

  • Females who mated in the spring and are fat enough to sustain a pregnancy build and enter a maternity den in the fall, which is soon hidden under drifts of snow. While in the den, the mother bears don’t eat or drink. Instead, they live off their body fat.

  • In the late fall or early winter, they give birth to one to three tiny and helpless cubs, nursing them until they are strong enough to leave the den three to four months later. The denning period is considered the most vulnerable time in a polar bear’s life.

  • Once the cubs are strong enough to withstand the rigors of the Arctic outside the den, the family will head to the sea ice to hunt seals right away because mama is hungry: by now she’s gone eight months without a meal!

2. Polar bear cubs grow incredibly rapidly for the first few years of life.

A tiny polar bear cub follows his or her mom on the sea ice

Photo: Meril Darees / Polar Bears International

  • Newborn cubs are only ~0.6 kg (1.3 lbs.) when born. By 3 months old, they may weigh ~10–12 kg (22-26 lbs.), growing approximately 20 times their original body weight in 12 weeks. If newborn humans did this, we’d need adult-size bassinets.

  • Cubs continue growing rapidly, more than doubling their weight between den emergence and their first birthday, and yet again between their first and second birthdays.

  • By 2 years old, male cubs can be as big as their moms and weigh hundreds of pounds.

  • The mother bear’s rich milk is a significant contributor to the rapid growth of cubs but comes at a significant cost to mom.

3. Polar bear milk is the fattiest of any land mammal's.

A mother polar bear and her two cubs peak out of their den

Photo: Dr. Steven Amstrup / Polar Bears International

  • Polar bear milk is about 31% fat when cubs are born, providing enough calories to help cubs grow rapidly.

  • The mother’s milk changes fat content and composition as cubs get older and nurse less, becoming closer to 18% fat by the time the cubs are a year old.

  • Although polar bear moms may nurse cubs through their second birthday, some females wean their cubs sometime after their first birthday. It may depend on the body condition of the mother—nursing cubs is extremely costly from an energy standpoint. Either way, mom helps make sure her cubs get enough to eat!

4. Cubs have to learn all about being a polar bear in just over two years.

A mother polar bear and her cub on a patch of ice

Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

  • Cubs stay with their moms for just over two years, learning as much as possible including how to navigate sea ice, when and where to migrate, how to hunt seals, how to avoid danger, and how to use their innate curiosity to learn new things.

  • Young cubs listen very well to their mothers, sometimes even mimicking mom’s movements exactly. As the cubs get older, some listen better than others.

  • Moms must make decisions in the best interest of the family, balancing the best places to hunt seals with keeping cubs safe from dangers like adult males or drowning in frigid waters.

  • When cubs are weaned, they are considered subadults (from 2.3 years to 5 years old) and have to put their newly acquired skills to the test.

5. Female polar bears start a new family about every three years.

A mom and her two cubs on a patch of sea ice

Photo: Dick and Val Beck / Polar Bears International

  • From about the age of 5, female polar bears mate and produce cubs approximately every three years depending on multiple factors.

  • If female bears reproduce consistently until their late 20s, that’s more than eight litters of cubs at one to three cubs each. One female polar bear could potentially produce over a dozen cubs in her lifetime, though not all cubs will make it into adulthood or reproduce themselves.

  • As soon as moms wean their cubs, their days of being solitary are short lived. Very soon it’s mating season (after which the males leave and are never seen again).

  • After mating, females must gorge themselves on seals to store as much fat as possible in order to start the cycle all over again.

6. The first years of a polar bear’s life are the most vulnerable.

A mother polar bear and her young triplet cubs

  • Cub survival rates can vary greatly by region and annual sea ice conditions, but on average only about 50 percent of cubs live past their first year. In parts of the Arctic with more sea ice loss, cub survival rates are even lower.

  • Declines in some polar bear populations  have been linked to low “cub recruitment”—that is, not enough cubs survive to adulthood. This is because polar bear moms in these regions have less time on the ice to hunt seals, making it hard for them to build up adequate fat reserves to nourish their young.

  • At the age of about 2.3, polar bears are weaned and become subadults. These young bears can have a difficult time since they no longer have mom to provide food, do not have a lot of experience hunting on their own, and do not yet have their full strength to catch prey. 

  • Once a polar bear reaches adulthood at about the age of 5, survival rates improve as the bear is smarter, stronger, and more easily able to catch prey.

We hope you’ll  join us for International Polar Bear Day on February 27th to celebrate polar bears and polar bear families! Learn how you can help protect mom and cubs by donating to give polar bear families the help they need, providing cubs with the best possible chance of survival.