What Is a Rainbow Baby?

Updated on February 18, 2019
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I have two healthy, happy daughters, but I'll never forget the complications and pitfalls I met on the road to motherhood.

What is a rainbow baby?
What is a rainbow baby? | Source

What Is a Rainbow Baby?

A "rainbow baby" is child born soon after the loss of its sibling, whether it was a miscarriage, stillbirth, or the early death of an infant.

The loss of a child is an utterly dark and cataclysmic event, so when it is followed by the birth of another child, just as a rainbow might follow a storm, that child is called a rainbow baby.

Are Rainbow Babies the Happiest Kind of All?

Although happiness is certainly one emotion that rainbow parents might be feeling, this situation stirs up all kinds of feelings, and not all of them are positive. The joy is usually mixed with fear, doubt, loss, yearning, guilt, and grief. The happiness does not ease the pain of the loss, just as the new baby can never replace or erase the memory of the one who didn't survive. So instead of simple happiness, the birth of a rainbow baby is often accompanied by a complicated and overwhelming mix of emotional extremes.

What Are the Emotional Challenges of Rainbow Babies?

  • Fear. These parents might be feeling overwhelmed by intense feelings of fear, doubt, and dread. They may be unable to relax or experience happiness because they are worried something bad will happen, again. Instead of just having normal expectant- or new-parent jitters, their anxiety is augmented by the fact that they have lost a child. Parents of rainbow babies might be exponentially more fearful for their baby's survival.
  • Loss. The new baby's presence might trigger memories of the one who came before, and the new parents might find themselves experiencing that sadness and loss all over again. So when they "should" be feeling joy, they find themselves overwhelmed with grief.
  • Guilt. These new parents might be experiencing intense feelings of responsibility and guilt. Instead of celebrating new life, they may feel tortured by the previous tragedy. Their happiness might even feel painfully wrong to them—an insult to their dead child's memory. Friends and family members who don't understand might keep bringing up the past, too.
  • Guilty Happiness. In addition to plain old guilt, their happiness is often clouded by guilty feelings. Any fleeting bursts of joy they might feel can be quickly swallowed or flushed away by intense guilt for allowing themselves to experience any happiness whatsoever. It's a complete roller coaster.
  • Joy. Even feelings of love and joy can be troubling for parents who have recently experienced loss, especially since they know from experience that joy can turn to devastation in a split second.
  • Everything at Once. You might find yourself experiencing opposite or incompatible emotions simultaneously. You feel like a rope being ripped in opposite directions.

What to Expect When You're Pregnant With a Rainbow Baby

Expect conflicting emotions. It's completely normal to feel a violent mixture of happiness and grief, hope and doubt, terror and reassurance, and anticipation and fear under these circumstances.

You may experience off-the-charts attacks of fear, paranoia, and anxiety. It's so scary, isn't it? Because you of all people know that there's no guarantee with a pregnancy. There's nothing more terrifying than carrying a baby, and for a mother who recently lost a pregnancy or child, it's even scarier. Your feelings are understandable and completely normal. Get support if you needed it. Talk to your doctor.

You will need someone to talk to. Mothers who experience miscarriage—especially in the early months—oftentimes don't get the psychological support they need. Plus, we don't have traditions or ceremonies to help us get through miscarriages. Parents who lose a pregnancy or child early might even feel silly or embarrassed by their grief, so they hesitate to reach out and bite their tongues. They might not even tell close friends and family what happened.

The loss of a pregnancy is something we don't always talk about, but we really should. If you can, help yourself by talking to others: friends, family, a therapist, or other mothers who have experienced the same thing. Pregnancy After Loss Support (PALS).

You will feel conflicted and triggered by your feelings for your rainbow baby. The sight of your new baby's face will remind you of the child you lost. When you look at the crib you bought, the clothes you saved, the toys you collected, and the car seat you purchased for the child that died, it can trigger the loss again.

You may doubt yourself and second-guess everything you do. Feelings of failure can cloud all your choices and actions, and you may lose self confidence entirely. Fear might leave you frozen and unable to feel freely or act decisively. It's so hard not to blame ourselves—even if we know, realistically, it's not our fault, it's hard to regain confidence and begin to trust ourselves again.

What Can You Say to Someone Who Has a Rainbow Baby?

It can be hard to know the right thing to say to the new parent in this situation. "Congratulations" might feel wrong, but bringing up a previous loss in a supposedly happy moment can be awkward, too.

It is important to reach out, if you can. Pregnancy loss can be extremely stark, lonely, and isolating—sometimes even more than other types of loss since people who don’t know what to say tend to say nothing and avoid the situation entirely. So reaching out to connect and show support is extremely important. If you are afraid of saying the wrong thing, don't let it stop you from saying something—even "I don't know the right thing to say" or acknowledging the confusing mixture of happiness and loss is better than saying nothing at all.

If You Have a Rainbow Baby

Keep these things in mind:

  • You deserve this baby, even if your emotions and fears might tell you otherwise.
  • Be kind to yourself. Take care of yourself. Give yourself time.
  • Experiencing sadness when you should feel happy is normal. Don't blame yourself for letting your happiness be overwhelmed with sad memories.
  • You can feel sadness and happiness at the same time. These emotions don't cancel each other out. You are allowed to feel it all at once.
  • Having a rainbow baby is fraught with anxiety. Get the help you need to alleviate it, but also know that it's normal.
  • You may be detached... or overprotective. Research shows that both extremes are common in moms who have lost children or pregnancies. You might feel the need to control everything, or you might experience feelings of detachment and utter powerlessness. It's all normal.
  • Anxiety might make hard for you to sleep or share your rainbow baby. If you experience fierce feelings of overprotectiveness and desire for control, talk about it with the people who are close to you.
  • Postpartum depression and anxiety are common. Moms with rainbow babies have a greater risk of experiencing full-blown pre- and postpartum anxiety and depressive symptoms. It's so important to talk with your doctors.
  • Some day soon, bit by bit, your fears and doubts will fade away and be replaced with joy and love. You'll always remember the one you lost, but the pain will eventually fade and lose its teeth.

What Is the Difference Between a Rainbow and a Sunshine Baby?

A sunshine baby is one who is born before a miscarriage or stillbirth, while a rainbow baby comes after the death of an infant.

But in both situations, the parents' grief and loss might affect their relationships with their babies. Both sunshine and rainbow babies can help soothe the pain of the loss, only the timing of that loss is different in each situation... a sunshine baby will be born before the loss of its younger sibling, while a rainbow baby is born after.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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