What Is a Rainbow Baby?

Learn the meaning of the therm "rainbow baby" and read inspiring rainbow pregnancy stories.
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ByCherlaine Tabo
Jan 2019
Rainbow baby wearing rainbow blanket
Photo: Shutterstock, @aimleephotography, JoAnn Marrero/From Labor to Love, courtesy of Cheryl Heitzman

When you see that second pink line on a pregnancy test, your whole life transforms in the blink of an eye. Having a baby is an experience unlike any other in your lifetime, and you’re filled with joy, hope and expectation. Alongside this joy, though, comes the fear of miscarriage, stillbirth or loss of the baby you’ve dreamed about so fervently. But what about the women who do experience the tragedy of losing a baby? How do they live through the unimaginable pain and sadness? And what happens when they eventually go on to have another baby after such a crippling loss? This is what it means to have a rainbow baby.

What Is a Rainbow Baby?

A rainbow baby is a baby born shortly after the loss of a previous baby due to miscarriage, stillbirth or death in infancy. This term is given to these special rainbow babies because a rainbow typically follows a storm, giving us hope of what’s to come.

Having a baby soon after losing one brings a slew of emotions, and many rainbow moms will tell you not all are positive emotions. Many mothers who’ve weathered the loss and gone on to have another baby feel a tremendous sense of self-doubt and guilt at times. They fear others will think they’ve gotten over their previous loss, or that they’ve moved on or replaced their baby. They fear having a rainbow baby after stillbirth in some way dishonors their baby who has passed, and that the joy of the next baby will prevent them from properly grieving.

But a rainbow baby doesn’t mean your loss should be forgotten. Rather, your rainbow baby will carry the torch of the love you will always have for the child you lost, and when you hold that precious baby in your arms, you’ll fully understand the meaning of the term. The beautiful rainbow baby stories told by rainbow moms are triumphant tales of renewal and healing, with their underlying emotions ranging from bittersweet happiness to overwhelming joy.

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Personal Rainbow Baby Stories

Nothing can better describe the experience of having a rainbow baby better than hearing directly from rainbow moms themselves. The Bump interviewed several parents who have experienced this unique clash of emotions first-hand.

Jessica Zucker’s rainbow baby story

The Bump recently spoke with Jessica Zucker, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive issues like fertility, pregnancy loss and prenatal and postpartum adjustments, as well as mood and anxiety disorders related to pregnancy. We had an inspiring conversation with her where she explained the term “rainbow baby” and shared her own personal experience. Her campaign #IHadAMiscarriage, along with her beautifully illustrated pregnancy loss cards, serve to bring awareness to the issue of miscarriage and create an open forum for discussion about the topic without shame and stigma. “In our culture, it’s so problematic for people to discuss miscarriages,” Zucker says. “The cards were inspired to give a concrete way to connect in a very meaningful way. It helps the loved one support the griever.”

Zucker worked in the reproductive and maternal mental health field for a decade before experiencing her own miscarriage at 16 weeks. From the start, her second pregnancy was the complete opposite of her first. It was a trying pregnancy and things just didn’t feel right. She had some episodes of spotting but was assured she was fine.

On her drive home from work one day, she started experiencing what she later realized were contractions. It didn’t occur to her that she was in early labor. While getting ready to visit her perinatologist one morning soon after, she went into active labor. With the help of her doctor over the phone, she delivered her baby alone at home. The baby, who was far from the age of viability (generally considered to be week 26 of pregnancy), did not survive the traumatic birth.

A few months later, she was pregnant with her rainbow baby, whom she delivered without any medication. Her journey of pain that ended in loss inspired her to deliver her daughter without an epidural so she could experience the precious pain that’s truly a labor of love.

Zucker’s own loss made her realize she wasn’t well-versed in the language of loss, which ignited her passion for activism in the pregnancy loss community. She found pregnancy loss can be even more isolating than other types of loss and grief because people just don’t know what to say, so they have a tendency to withdraw and say nothing at all. “In a situation where a woman has a miscarriage, a later loss, a stillbirth or an infant loss, people are mortified and bewildered,” she says. “We have a hard time sitting in uncomfortable spaces and as a result, people go quiet. Is it worse to stay quiet or say the wrong thing? Being quiet is worse, in a way. The person who says something that might sting is at least trying and they haven’t disappeared altogether.”

Zucker says her rainbow baby story is one of many miracle journeys out there, a belief that’s been reinforced by the thousands of tweets using the #IHadaMiscarriage hashtag.

Jessica Mahoney’s rainbow baby story

For Jessica Mahoney, learning the devastating news that her baby had no heartbeat at nearly 12 weeks pregnant was just the tip of the iceberg. She and her husband had brought their one-year-old son with them to the ultrasound, eager for him to see what would likely be the first of several siblings. “I had always wanted to be a mother, always known I was destined to have lots of children,” she says. “I felt like our son Corbin was just the start of all the babies we would welcome into the world.”

Despite the immense sadness they felt following their loss, Jessica and her husband began trying again. They became pregnant immediately, but that pregnancy also ended in a miscarriage, this time at 8 weeks. After enduring a second D&C and then another early miscarriage at home, Jessica began seeing a fertility specialist who was finally able to shed some light on the reason for her miscarriages.

After genetic tests were performed, results indicated severe genetic abnormalities on two of the three babies—trisomy and triploidy, neither of which are compatible with life. As a result, Mahoney’s fertility specialist strongly recommended In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF) with genetic screening, a request that was denied by her health insurance since she wasn’t experiencing an inability to conceive. Despite this, a glimmer of hope came in the form of a round of Intra-Uterine Insemination (IUI), resulting in a closely monitored pregnancy into which Jessica placed all her faith and hoped with every shred of her being.

Tragically, Mahoney and her husband would endure yet another loss. “This loss affected me the hardest,” she says. “I was unable to function following it. I couldn’t go to work and I had a very hard time sending my son to daycare. I had overwhelming anxiety that something would happen to him and I was so afraid he was the only child we would ever have. Following this loss, we went to a support group for pregnancy and infant loss and I started seeing a therapist.”

It took Mahoney several months to even consider trying again. Knowing they were at the bitter end of their options, she and her husband made the difficult choice to pay for a second round of IUI out of pocket, which would allow her fertility specialist to submit yet another request for IVF with preimplantation genetic screening to the insurance company.

Amazingly, the IUI turned out to be the best financial investment the Mahoneys ever made, as it resulted in a viable pregnancy that she carried to term. They welcomed a rainbow baby girl who Mahoney says “has been a warrior since conception.” After their incredibly tough journey and the loss of six babies, their baby girl has made their family complete, giving them hope as they look to the next chapter of their lives.

Heather Hesington’s rainbow baby story

“I’ve had a variety of jobs that include everything from being a professional dancer for the National Basketball Association to a personal trainer, but more than anything, I always knew I wanted to be a mother,” Heather Hesington tells The Bump. But due to multiple job layoffs and two cross-country moves, she and her husband put off growing their family until three and a half years into their marriage—and by then, they were more than ready to bring a baby into this world. That excitement turned to frustration after several months of trying without success. Months turned into a year—but then Hesington finally got to live her dream of telling her husband they were expecting.

“Everything went great at our 8-week ultrasound, and we showed the blurry collection of photos with our families on Christmas Day in 2015,” she says. “I knew things weren’t going as planned, however, the day before our 12-week ultrasound appointment. After some concerning spotting, my husband and I returned to the same ultrasound room that made us cry happy tears, only this time we left without that amazing sound of a heartbeat.”

Their doctor thought they lost the baby around 9 weeks, and Hesington’s body experienced what’s labeled as a missed miscarriage. “We scheduled a D&C for the next day, and that was one of the hardest days of my life,” she says. “The nurses who walked me through the procedure were encouraging and shared their own stories about their miscarriages and how they both got pregnant again shortly after. This gave me a lot of hope, but this loss affected me more than I ever imagined it could, and I still grieve the loss of our first baby to this day.”

After another full year of trying to get pregnant, Hesington saw a positive pregnancy test and was over the moon. She told her husband right away, and he insisted on telling their closest friends and family. “I was very open about our journey in trying to conceive as well as our first loss on my blog,” she says. “I went against the normal trend of hiding feelings and the not-so-perfect times on the internet. Doing so was not only therapeutic for me, but it also enabled many others to share their own stories and talk about their losses too.”

Hesington and her husband decided to get holiday pictures taken in early November, and since she was already 7 weeks along, they shot a few pregnancy announcement photos too. They went in for the 8-week ultrasound the next week, but left with scans showing a pregnancy sac without a baby. “Just to be sure I wasn’t just measuring behind, we came back the following week for another ultrasound, and there was the tiniest flicker of a heartbeat. We had hope!” she says. “Sadly, at 10 weeks, our baby had disappeared again, and this loss hit me just as hard as the first one.”

Hesington describes the hardest part of going through miscarriages is the envy you naturally develop toward others who seem to effortlessly get pregnant. “During our years of trying, it felt like pregnancy announcements and baby milestones filled my news feeds just to haunt me,” she says. “I was happy for my new mommy friends, but I also kept my distance from them when I was going through a rough patch. In fact, I wrote an open letter about this, as well as the pregnancy envy I was struggling with.”

It took some time, a lot of rest and a lot of support from friends and family, but Hesington and her husband decided to start trying again a few months after their second loss. Just in time for their six-year wedding anniversary and just shy of three years after first trying to conceive, Hesington learned she was pregnant and wrapped the tests up like a present to gift her husband in order to share the news. After experiencing multiple miscarriages, it was a time to celebrate, but they were also extremely nervous. She wound up having a scare early on at about 5 weeks and thought she was going to have another miscarriage, she says. She put herself on bed rest until she could see her doctor, and was shocked when the ultrasounds came out totally normal.

Hesington continued on to have a healthy, full-term pregnancy, but was nervous throughout the entire journey. “I was more than careful about what I ate and drank (or didn’t), and I modified my exercise level down to a much easier routine,” she says. “I remember it being a struggle to have joy and grief co-exist, but I learned that it can and does in my life, even today.” Their beautiful rainbow baby, Skyler King, was born in March of 2018. “I fall more in love with him every single day, and he is completely perfect in my eyes,” Hesington says.

“While there are definitely challenging moments of being a parent, I truly believe that everything we went through to finally have him was one hundred percent worth it,” she adds. “I think the journey helps with the harder and lonelier days too. Going through three years of endless tears, prayers and heartbreaks wasn’t easy, but that time is what shaped me to be the mother I am to him today. I don’t take any time with him for granted, and I still think about those struggling through infertility and miscarriages often.”

Felicity’s rainbow baby story

Two years ago, Felicity and her husband were ready to have a baby, and assumed she’d get pregnant fast and everything would be perfect. After all, things were already pretty perfect: She was married to her high school sweetheart, they had just returned from an awesome vacation to Mexico, they both had great jobs, a beautiful home and two dogs.

Sure enough, Felicity became pregnant easily. She and her husband waited until they were in the “safe zone” at 16 weeks and announced her pregnancy on Thanksgiving. But soon after, Felicity began experiencing some spotting, and one morning woke up with severe cramping and blood clots. “I remember sitting in the car in silence as we sped to the hospital,” she says. “My body succeeded at creating a miracle of life, but now my body was failing me and rejecting what it created. I couldn’t really process what was happening.” She walked numbly into the emergency room and shortly after miscarried in the hallway.

“The feeling that comes with a miscarriage is unlike anything I’ve ever felt,” Felicity says. “I felt guilty, like I had done something wrong. The feeling was deep, like part of myself had died. I didn’t understand my own feelings, and I didn’t know how to explain it, even to my husband.” She went back to work the following Monday and felt like everyone was staring at her. She put a smile on her face and pretended like everything was okay—but when it proved too much, she found a closet and burst into tears. What made it worse was that no one seemed to know what to say to her. She admits even she didn’t know what she wanted or needed to hear. She dreaded going to work and just wanted to stay home, to lie in bed and never leave.

But after the new year, Felicity and her husband began trying again. In May 2017, they had a moment of joy when they found out they were pregnant again. Sadly, the moment was short-lived, and she miscarried at 8 weeks.

She remembers lying in the doctor’s office looking at the screen as the sonogram showed a blank emptiness, as if they were looking into her heart, she says. This time Felicity and her husband kept the loss secret (telling only their parents), which proved painful and burdensome to hide. “I reached the lowest low that I’ve felt in my life,” she says. “The ‘what-ifs’ began to go through my mind that summer as I reached what would have been my due date with my first baby. What would my baby have looked like? Would it have been a boy or a girl?”

Felicity began taking medication in hopes of getting pregnant and having a healthy pregnancy. She also discovered a ministry group called Waiting in Hope that supports women as they navigate through infertility, loss, miscarriage and adoption. It was just what her soul needed, she says. “At the time I didn’t realize, but looking back, my miscarriages had taken a toll on me, not only physically but also mentally. I met women that knew exactly what it was like to struggle with conceiving. I was not alone in this journey. They brought hope, encouragement and strength during this difficult time.”

She found herself living month to month, taking countless ovulation tests and pregnancy tests in hopes of a positive result, but each time saw a screen staring back with the verdict “not pregnant.” Felicity scheduled a ob-gyn visit to discuss her options, but couldn’t help wondering whether having a baby just wasn’t going to happen for her. “This was difficult for me to grasp,” she says. But a few days before her doctor visit she felt sick to her stomach, light headed, dizzy and had no appetite. “Any other month I would have taken a pregnancy test,” Felicity says. “Instead, I told myself I was going to wait until my doctors appointment. But the day before my visit, I couldn’t wait any longer. I took a pregnancy test and ‘pregnant’ flashed on the screen.” She was shocked, as were the doctor and nurses when they explained what had been an infertility appointment now needed to be a pregnancy appointment. For the first time they saw the little flicker of a heartbeat on the screen.

Deciding when to announce the pregnancy was confusing with no clear answers. “I wanted to announce right away, since if we suffered another loss, I would want the support of my friends and family,” Felicity says. “But other days I wanted to wait until we were half way through the pregnancy, or maybe just skip everything and go straight to the birth announcement!”

The road from that point on was hard. As much as Felicity wanted to be excited, “I was robbing myself of the joy I wanted to feel through my pregnancy,” she says. “I was afraid to buy baby things and I didn’t want to decorate the nursery. My husband was the one who started a baby registry and I got an email invite to join.” She made it past 16 weeks, the point when Felicity experienced her first loss, but still her anxiety was at an all-time high, and found herself holding her breath at every doctor’s visit as they checked her baby’s heartbeat.

She made it through the second trimester, and once she reached the third trimester, she stopped working and remained on modified bed rest to focus on staying calm. And on July 31, 2018 Felicity and her husband finally held their rainbow baby Emma Rose in their arms. “She was perfect. She was alive,” Felicity says. “There are moments now when I’m up breastfeeding our daughter and she’s peacefully sleeping in my arms that my tears will roll onto her soft forehead. I found joy again; I laughed again after I thought I never would. The happiness she has brought is indescribable.”

“Though I was never able to hold my two other babies in my arms, I was always a mother,” she says. “I have two in heaven waiting and one here on earth. I wouldn’t trade them for the world. We have weathered the worst storm of all and came out on the other side. It taught me to cherish everything because it can be taken away at any second.”

Photo: Courtesy Cheryl Heitzman

Cheryl Heitzman’s rainbow baby story

Cheryl Heitzman is another miscarriage survivor who shared her story with The Bump. She’s currently 24 weeks pregnant with her rainbow baby, a boy who already owns his very own (very tiny!) Rangers jersey.

When Heitzman learned she was pregnant with her first baby, she had a tough time getting excited. The pregnancy was unexpected, and due to some mental health struggles of her own, she wasn’t sure she was quite ready to be a mother yet. However, she took comfort in the depth of her husband Ben’s excitement and tried to put her worries aside. “At our first ultrasound, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I knew enough to recognize that there was no heartbeat,” she says. “My heart sunk, and when I looked over at Ben, with a big smile still all over his face, it completely shattered.”

Many years later, armed with a new doctor and new medications that made her feel whole and healthy again, Heitzman decided she felt strong enough, physically and mentally, to try for their rainbow baby. Her husband was ecstatic, but she was worried, as so many rainbow moms are when they begin this journey. Nevertheless, she got pregnant quickly; within four months she and Ben were expecting their rainbow baby. At first, Cheryl’s severe first trimester morning sickness did little to quell her fear of miscarriage. But as the weeks went by and she hit the 12-week mark, she began to slowly relax. She felt baby’s first flutterings right at 16 weeks, and says, “Maybe he knew I was worried and decided to make his presence known.”

As she awaits the birth of her rainbow baby boy, Heitzman has started a blog where women can share their personal miscarriage stories and find support in doing so. She has found peace and encouragement in a group of women who have also experienced miscarriage. She strongly believes having a supportive group to talk to has been a great help to her in her journey. As Heitzman says, “Miscarriage is terrible, and terribly common. Let’s talk about it.”

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