What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Rainbow Baby

·7 min read
Photo credit: adamkaz - Getty Images
Photo credit: adamkaz - Getty Images

It was the fall of 2013, and I was sitting in the bathroom of our crammed little rental apartment. Holding a positive pregnancy test, I couldn’t stop sobbing.

There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to be pregnant. I knew my husband would be overjoyed and supportive. We didn’t have much money, but we would find a way to make it work. However, grief, fear, and confusion were the first things to come pouring out of me. I’d left my joy and excitement at my ob-gyn’s office the day I found out we had lost our first child.

I was in the middle of an emotional hurricane—the kind that you might be familiar with if, like me, you’ve been pregnant with a rainbow baby.

Rainbow babies, double rainbow babies, and golden babies are terms used by the pregnancy and loss communities to describe pregnancies that happen after certain events. A rainbow baby is a baby born after a miscarriage, a stillbirth, or another type of pregnancy loss. More than 10 percent of clinically recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage, and my first baby was one of them.

I found out I was pregnant with my rainbow baby just five weeks after my first pregnancy ended with a missed miscarriage. That meant I didn’t go through the pain of multiple menstrual cycles reminding me that I had lost my baby. But it didn’t mean I wasn't dealing with a flurry of other loaded questions.

Had my husband and I moved too quickly to “replace” the baby we never met? Had I betrayed that child in some way? Was I betraying this baby by not getting as excited about it as I did for my first pregnancy? And how would I emotionally survive it if I lost this baby, too?

What Does It Feel Like to Get Pregnant After a Loss?

Stephanie Hack, MD, is an ob-gyn in Rockville, Maryland, and host of the Lady Parts Doctor podcast. Hack says that feeling conflicted about a rainbow baby pregnancy isn’t unusual at all. “After an initial feeling of happiness, some parents might feel anxiety while they wait to confirm a healthy pregnancy,” she explains. “Parents may also feel unable to enjoy or connect with the pregnancy until it is confirmed, or until they get further in the pregnancy than they did the last time.”

In addition to this feeling of anxiousness, there’s often a layer of guilt. Parents might feel like by trying to get pregnant again, they’re aiming to replace what they’ve lost. If you get pregnant soon after a loss, it can feel like you’ve interrupted the grieving process. When you haven’t had time to heal, it’s hard to feel excited about a new pregnancy, especially when you’re nervous about whether this baby will reach your arms.

I experienced this feeling, in particular, as I awaited my rainbow baby. With my first pregnancy, I excitedly filled up a journal with letters. I kept detailed records of that pregnancy, as short-lived as it was. With my second pregnancy, I couldn’t bring myself to do any of those things. It felt like I was holding my breath waiting for something to go wrong, all the way up until the day he finally arrived.

What Is the Origin of the Term Rainbow Baby?

The term rainbow baby to refer to any baby born to parents after a previous pregnancy ended in a loss comes from the idea is that after a storm (the loss), comes sunshine (the pregnancy), and with it, a beautiful rainbow. You might see a lot of posts about it on social media, especially on August 22, which is National Rainbow Baby Day.

Rainbows, and rainbow babies, are a reminder that beautiful things are possible even after fear, uncertainty, and tragedy have happened. They’re also a reminder of how terrible things can make us more appreciative of good things when they occur.

How Common Are Rainbow Babies?

Statistically, most people who lose a pregnancy will get pregnant again, according to the American Pregnancy Association, which means that rainbow babies are pretty common.

Depending on where you are in your fertility journey, knowing many parents get their rainbow babies can feel like hope to hold on to. However, it doesn’t necessarily ease the pain when it feels like everybody you know is pregnant except for you.

Even though many women will go on to have babies after their pregnancy losses, that doesn’t mean the baby you lost “doesn't count” or gets erased. Miscarriage grief is very real, and it can hurt for a lifetime.

Holly Puritz, MD, an ob-gyn who practices in Norfolk, Virginia, and serves on the board for Lucina Analytics, a prenatal data analysis company, says that it can be especially nerve-racking to find out you’re pregnant if your first experience with pregnancy has ended in a loss. “I always tell those mothers that they’re entitled to be afraid,” she says. “They’re entitled to be concerned, and no one should minimize what they have gone through. Even if it was an early loss, it was still [a real child] to that patient.”

Puritz also points out that these days, home pregnancy tests mean that women are able to confirm pregnancies earlier than ever before. This means people know that they are pregnant much earlier than they used to.

Ten percent of “clinically recognized” pregnancies confirmed via a heartbeat heard on an ultrasound end in miscarriage, but when you factor in all pregnancies, that percentage shoots up to 26 percent. So while there are benefits to finding out about a pregnancy early, it also means people are aware of their early pregnancy losses more often than they would have been in the past. More miscarriage awareness equals more rainbow babies.

What’s Different About Babies Born After a Loss?

Rainbow baby isn’t the only term that’s popular in the pregnancy and loss community. A double rainbow baby, as you might guess, is a baby born after you’ve had two losses. And a golden baby is a child born after a rainbow, implying that safely delivering two children in a row is equivalent to a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Some people swear that their rainbow baby has a special personality. The child may seem to be more in tune with their spiritual side, or like they have a special connection with your “angel baby”—the child you lost—who was in your womb before them. That’s completely anecdotal, of course, but it’s part of why people on pregnancy message boards and social media will often describe their rainbow baby as bringing hope and joy to their lives in a time of overwhelming darkness.

There may not actually be anything different about rainbow babies, but parents might feel especially grateful for these babies after the sadness and pain of pregnancy loss.

My rainbow baby just turned 8, but I remember well those rapid-fire questions that filled my mind when I found out I was carrying him. It still boggles my mind to think that if I had carried my first baby to term, I never would have met my son. At the same time, I still think about the baby I lost as my “first,” even if they didn’t end up being the oldest child I got to hold. I know things played out the way they were supposed to, even though I wish that loss weren’t written into the story of how we expanded our own family.

Whether you’re newly pregnant after a loss, trying for your rainbow baby, or know someone who is walking through miscarriage grief, remember that each pregnancy is a uniquely individual experience. Rainbow babies, beautiful as they are, bring all different shades of emotion as we hope, dream, love, and appreciate them.

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