What's a ‘Rainbow Baby’? Here's Why the Term Matters
Every baby is special. But a rainbow baby represents a very particular kind of hope — hope for parents who have lost a baby due to miscarriage, stillbirth or death in infancy. A rainbow baby is one born after such heartbreaking loss. And these little ones couldn't be better named; after all, a rainbow typically follows a storm and hints that sunshine and calm are on the way.
"We are wired for hope and connection. After the loss of a baby, there can be terrible despair. But when that despair shifts to hope, life feels possible again," child psychologist Dr. Vanessa Lapointe tells SheKnows. "Also, when an unborn or stillborn baby dies, we need to stay connected to that little life. The idea of a baby being a rainbow baby allows the deceased sibling to remain part of the family system. The mention of the rainbow baby also, by default, reminds us of the lost baby. It is a beautiful way for families to be able to maintain that connection within their family systems."
The rainbow baby concept can also help parents process any feelings of guilt and deal with blame they may place on themselves for the loss of their other child, licensed psychotherapist Dr. Mayra Mendez tells SheKnows.
"Trying to conceive another baby while memorializing the experience of the loss of another baby supports a foundation from which despair is managed and hope is restored and reinforced with the prospect of bringing a new life into the family," says Mendez. "Celebrating rainbow babies provides parents with a perspective that helps them to shift from self-blame to acknowledging their strengths and accomplishments through the life of their baby."
Alaina Moorefield is one mom who knows the unique beauty and joy of a rainbow baby after heartbreak. Twice during a period of 18 months, Moorefield went through two miscarriages.
"What I experienced was a very unique and difficult type of loss," she told SheKnows. "To mourn a child you have never met is almost like mourning the future. I yearned and prayed for all that comes along with a healthy pregnancy — the kicks and rolls, the ligament stretching, the muscle pains and sleepless nights. I was unsure if I would ever hear another heartbeat over the Doppler machine or if I would ever be piecing together a nursery for another baby."
Moorefield began to identify with the term "infertility."
"It was a difficult term to accept," she admits. "But based on my multiple miscarriages, I fit into that category. Most days, that label consumed my mind. I wasn't sure if I would have the courage to try again."
But Moorefield and her husband, who already had two sons, ages 3 and 10, did try again. And when Moorefield found out she was pregnant, she was understandably overcome with nerves.
"I wanted so badly to believe that this baby would make it, but I needed a sign," she said. "That weekend, the most vibrant rainbow appeared in the sky right outside our front door. I remember looking at my husband and feeling a moment of complete reassurance come over me. I grabbed our sons, we turned on some music, and we had a dance party in the living room. My parents called later on to ask if we had seen the rainbow, as they had seen it too. I will never forget that night. It gave me the faith I so desperately needed. Eight months later, our beautiful, healthy daughter, Everly, was born. Someday, I will tell Everly this story, and of her two little angels. I know they are always with us."
Another mom waiting for the arrival of her own rainbow baby is Erin Burke from Baltimore, Maryland.
In April 2017, after 26 weeks of a "picture-perfect pregnancy," Burke's daughter, Summer, was stillborn. "The autopsy was inconclusive, and we were told 'someone has to be the statistic, and in this case, it's you,'" Erin tells SheKnows. "Our world was turned upside down. Trying to adjust to this new normal was the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do. We just kept thinking, "This isn’t fair. This isn’t how this was supposed to go."
Six months later, Burke and her husband started trying to conceive again, which was a hugely emotional process. "Every month, I would sob over the negative pregnancy tests and be filled with envy at the seemingly countless women around me who were getting pregnant without even trying," said Burke. "It wasn’t until I fully surrendered to this process and gave up any expectation that I did get two little pink lines on a test. I immediately started crying so hard, I could barely see the test anymore."
But after the joy came the fear — fear of losing this baby too. "I try my best to stay in today and enjoy every moment that I am blessed with this little boy — yes, it’s a boy! We will never 'get over' the loss of our daughter, but just for today, we are looking forward in hope," says Burke, whose rainbow baby boy is due in October.
"Rainbow baby" may be a relatively new term, but parents have been experiencing devastating baby losses for, well, forever. What's changed is that the conversation about baby loss (plus conception difficulties and infertility) flows more readily nowadays. "Language that facilitates this really allows for people to grieve more openly, receive more support and connect to the possibility of hope via others’ rainbow baby stories," said Lapointe.
"Celebrating rainbow babies acknowledges the unbearable experience many couples have suffered and gives them hope that something amazing can happen," women's health expert Dr. Sherry Ross, OB-GYN told SheKnows. "It’s the perfect metaphor for the possibility of the 'pot of gold' at the end of the rainbow."
Here's to celebrating rainbow babies — and the siblings they never meet but who are always with them.