The term rainbow baby may not be familiar to people who haven't experienced a loss. But to those of us who have, it has a very deep and even life-changing significance.
A rainbow baby "is a baby born after a miscarriage, stillborn, or neonatal death," Jennifer Kulp-Makarov, M.D., FACOG, explained to Parents.com. "It is called a rainbow baby because it is like a rainbow after a storm: something beautiful after something scary and dark." She adds, "It is an extremely emotional and devastating experience to lose a pregnancy [or baby]. To create a life or bring a baby into the world after such a loss is amazing like a miracle for these parents."
I am currently seven months pregnant with a rainbow baby, and indeed, I feel like I am walking around with a miracle in my belly. There was a time when I never thought I could feel hopeful again. Just last year, we lost our beloved baby Cara at 23 weeks of pregnancy. The days, weeks, and months after she became our angel baby were the darkest of my life. But soon a dim hope flickered inside my heart, and eventually ignited a flame, that became my desire to try again, in part to honor Cara, and to find meaning in her loss.
Rainbow Babies Can Honor an Angel Baby
Moline Prak Pandiyan, an ambassador for last year's March for Babies for March of Dimes Eastern North Carolina, knows this feeling well. She lost her son Niko when he was five months old due to complications related to his premature birth. "Although Niko lost his fight, his spirit lives on, and he continues to inspire many," she told us. Not only is this mama involved in fighting prematurity, but she was also inspired to conceive a rainbow baby.
Not that she knew previously what a rainbow baby was. "I remember the feeling that I had when I first heard [the term]. It was perfect. I so much wanted to make sure that Niko wasn't forgotten, and the term so eloquently acknowledges the babies who we've lost, while also celebrating the joy of our babies who do survive."
Prak Pandiyan is now a proud mom of a little girl, her rainbow, who truly informs her parenting philosophy. "My husband and I always wondered what life would have been like if our son could be discharged and come home with us," she explains. "When we welcomed our rainbow baby into this world, our perspective as parents shifted. Whenever things get hard—feeding challenges, sleeping challenges, mild illnesses—we always make it a point to step back and remember that things could be so much worse."
Parenting a Rainbow Baby May Feel Different
Mama Stephanie Sherrill Huerta, who has one daughter, is also currently expecting a rainbow baby, via adoption, after several miscarriages and failed adoption attempts. She too acknowledges that parenting her rainbow baby will be different, telling Parents.com, "We will love him a little differently than our daughter because we went through so much grief and pain before meeting him. He will truly be the light at the end of the tunnel, the pot of gold under the rainbow, and the rainbow after our storm."
That same spirit has encouraged me to enjoy my current pregnancy more than before. Morning sickness and heartburn can't take away my gratitude for the chance to carry a healthy baby. Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins, M.D., MSc, Obstetrics and Gynecology, CareMount Medical says this is normal. "For parents who have experienced the loss of a child, whether that loss occurs before or after birth, the life adjustments associated with pregnancy are accompanied with an acute sense of gratitude even when they are uncomfortable," she tells us. "And although most of us have the great fortune of being wanted babies, parents tend to have a special, and in many cases incredibly sharp, sense of being blessed when they are expecting and then giving birth to a baby that follows loss."
But Dr. Kulp-Makarov cautions, "The birth and newborn stage of a rainbow baby are different for parents who have suffered a loss. They can expect a rush of strong and complicated emotions. Parents may swing between this amazing awe at their new baby and strong fear that something may happen and they may lose this new baby too."
Welcoming a Rainbow Baby Can Be Emotional for Parents
Guilt is a common feeling for parents who welcome a rainbow baby, adds Dr. Lorde-Rollins. "Parents can feel that being excited about the new pregnancy or loving this new baby when he or she arrives, is somehow a betrayal of the baby they lost." Dr. Kulp-Makarov says. "These parents need a lot of emotional support during pregnancy and birth."
For me, support has come, in part, in the form of knowing I am not alone. As Dr. Kulp-Makarov points out, the term "rainbow baby" is becoming more mainstream and this has helped to increase awareness around loss and healing. "These babies are a beautiful example of how women's bodies and spirits can heal after a pregnancy or neonatal loss," she says.
Healing doesn't mean forgetting. "Don't be afraid to keep the child that you lost as part of your lives, in whatever way is special and important to you," Prak Pandiyan says to other parents who have endured loss. She adds that creating new, beautiful traditions with your rainbow baby is also a special way to celebrate their new, miraculous life.