What Is a Rainbow Baby?
July 21, 2021
When you see that telltale second line on a pregnancy test, your whole life changes in the blink of an eye. Finding out you’re expecting a baby is an experience unlike any other. You’ll find yourself consumed with joy, hope and expectation. Alongside this elation, however, can come the fear of miscarriage, stillbirth or loss of the baby you’ve dreamed about so fervently.
Unfortunately, these experiences are more prevalent than you may think. Miscarriage is the most common of these occurrences; according to the American Pregnancy Association, 10 to 25 percent of pregnancies result in this type of spontanous loss. Needless to say, the mental and emotional aftermath can be devastating for parents. How do they endure the unimaginable pain and sadness? And what happens if and when they try to have another baby after facing such a crippling loss?
Here, we’re highlighting the stories of real women who have experienced the grief of losing a baby and the happiness of welcoming a rainbow baby. This rollercoaster journey comes with mixed emotions, and many moms describe the simultaneous guilt and hope they face as they mourn their loss while celebrating new life.
If you’ve never heard the meaningful expression, you may be wondering: What is a rainbow baby? Our rainbow baby definition is simple and impactful; it describes a child born after the loss of a previous baby due to miscarriage, stillbirth or death in infancy. A rainbow baby can also refer to a newly adopted child. This symbolic term is given to these special little ones as a beautiful reminder that a rainbow typically follows a storm, giving us hope of what’s to come. Likewise, rainbow babies usher in love and light after a period of darkness.
Having a baby after losing a previous child brings a broad range of emotions, and many rainbow moms will tell you that these feelings are not all positive. Some mothers who’ve weathered loss and gone on to have another baby feel a tremendous sense of self-doubt and guilt. They fear others will think they’ve gotten over their loss, or that they’ve moved on and replaced their baby. They worry that having a rainbow baby in some way dishonors their baby who has passed, and that the joy of welcoming another child will prevent them from properly grieving. It’s a lot to juggle and work through, and there’s no guidebook to follow. “Take a self-compassionate stance regarding these mixed emotions, knowing that your body and brain are trying to process your loss and your upcoming birth,” says Aparna Iyer, MD, a reproductive psychiatrist in Frisco, Texas.
Being pregnant with a rainbow baby may also introduce an unexpected shift in perspective. Some women find a renewed appreciation for the otherwise not-so-pleasant parts of pregnancy. Mild morning sickness, for example, may suddenly feel like a reassuring comfort. Moreover, other rainbow moms find themselves slowing down to soak up the little moments and milestones—a belly kick from a rainbow baby might feel extra meaningful.
On the other hand, some parents going through the experience have heightened anxiety and worry that something could go wrong. “Doctor visits and ultrasounds can be very anxiety- provoking this time around, which may feel foreign if these appointments felt exciting in the previous pregnancy,” says Iyer.
No matter what or how you’re feeling, know that your emotions are valid. There are many support groups available to parents expecting rainbow babies, which can help you process what happened and honor your path. If you’re experiencing pervasive sadness or depression, talk to your doctor, and if you’re having thoughts of self harm, seek immediate help.
A rainbow baby doesn’t mean your loss will be forgotten. Rather, your rainbow baby will carry the torch of the love you’ll always have for the child you lost—and when you hold that precious rainbow baby in your arms, you’ll finally fully understand the meaning of this transformative term.
Nothing can better describe the experience of having a rainbow baby than hearing directly from rainbow moms themselves. The Bump interviewed several parents who have experienced this unique mix of emotions firsthand. These incredible rainbow baby stories are bittersweet and triumphant tales of renewal and healing.
Jessica Kunen’s rainbow baby story
Four months after getting engaged, Jessica Kunen and her fiance knew they were ready to start trying for a baby. “We decided to take a pregnancy test on the morning of June 4, our nine year anniversary of being together,” Kunen recalls. And when they saw the positive line appear? “We were completely shocked and excited.” Sadly, their elation was fleeting. A few weeks later, when the couple went for their first ultrasound, they were heartbroken to see that Kunen’s uterus was empty. “There was nothing there; it was like a blank black hole on the screen, and our hearts dropped,” she says. Understandably, they were confused when the doctor told them it was an ectopic pregnancy. Kunen shares, “I naively thought, ‘Okay, well, let’s just move it from my fallopian tube into my uterus. That’s a thing, right?’” (Unfortunately, it’s not.)
Suffice to say, it was a lot for Kunen to handle. “The wave of emotions were so fast; my body and mind were not equipped to process trauma like that so quickly.” Nevertheless, Kunen put on a brave face to take care of business. She immediately went for bloodwork to check her hormone levels and found out she’d need emergency shots of Methotrexate to stop the ectopic pregnancy. A few days later she began bleeding heavily, and the trauma didn’t stop—Jessica’s stomach became distended and she could barely walk. She learned that she had developed a very large blood clot between her uterus and bladder; it eventually passed on its own, but not without causing immense pain. What’s more, the physical toll ushered in even more mental anguish. “My mind hit every dark corner of depression that I hadn’t seen in over a decade. I was like, ‘Okay, I live here now. This is me,’” Kunen says.
Fortunately, her doctor was a beacon of support. She encouraged them to try again after one menstrual cycle, but Kunen needed a bit more time to heal emotionally. “I listened to my intuition and we tried again in October—and our rainbow miracle pregnancy happened,” she says. They went for an ultrasound at 6 weeks and were able to see the heartbeat. Kunen describes the moment as “absolute magic.” On July 18, she labored and delivered at home, in her bed. It was exactly what she wanted for her experience. “As soon as she came out, my husband said she looked like Winnie the Pooh,” Kunen remembers. They hadn’t settled on a name quite yet, but, after days of “soaking up her sweetness… It just stuck.” Winnie Oliva instantly became the great joy in her mom’s life. “Sometimes you just need a ‘win’ in life—and she was it,” Kunen says.
Jessica Zucker’s rainbow baby story
The Bump spoke with Jessica Zucker, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive issues, including fertility, pregnancy loss and mood and anxiety disorders related to pregnancy. She explained her rainbow baby definition 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 or 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 trying, 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, who she delivered without any medication. Her gut-wrenching journey inspired her to want to deliver her daughter without an epidural—so she could experience the precious pain that truly is 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 that this type of loss can be even more isolating than others; people just don’t know what to say, so they tend to withdraw and go silent. “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 (dilation and curretage) and then another early miscarriage at home, Jessica began seeing a fertility specialist who was finally able to shed some light on her recurring miscarriages.
Genetic tests indicated severe 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 intrauterine insemination (IUI), resulting in a closely monitored pregnancy into which Jessica placed all her faith.
Tragically, Mahoney and her husband would endure yet another heartbreak. “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 the 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 to our families on Christmas Day,” 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 says 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, ample 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, is a reminder of this truth. “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 100 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; she 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 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; she woke up one morning 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 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 she didn’t even 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 the spring, 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 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 on 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 an ob-gyn visit to discuss her options but couldn’t help wondering if having a baby just wasn’t in the cards. “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 and dizzy. “Any other month I would have taken a pregnancy test,” Felicity says. “Instead, I told myself I was going to wait until my doctor’s 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 she explained that her infertility appointment would now need 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. “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 halfway through the pregnancy, or maybe just skip everything and go straight to the birth announcement!”
The road from that point on was hard. She found it difficult to feel any excitement. “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 her anxiety remained at an all-time high. She found herself holding her breath at every doctor’s visit as they checked baby’s heartbeat.
When she reached the third trimester, she stopped working and remained on modified bed rest to focus on staying calm. On the last day of July, 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.”
Cheryl Heitzman’s rainbow baby story
When Cheryl 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, she wasn’t sure she was quite ready to be a mother. But she took comfort in the depth of her husband Ben’s enthusiasm, and she 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 sank, 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 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.”
At 24 weeks pregnant, Heizman eagerly awaits the birth of her rainbow baby boy. She has started a blog where women can share their personal miscarriage stories and find peace and encouragement in doing so. She strongly believes having a supportive group to talk to has been a great help in her journey. As Heitzman says, “Miscarriage is terrible and terribly common. Let’s talk about it.”
These beautiful and moving stories serve as a reminder that you are not alone in your journey. Whether you’re expecting a rainbow baby or hoping to welcome one someday, know that there is love, light and hope around the bend. Countless women have gone through miscarriage, stillbirth or tragedy; there should be no stigma in your experience and no shame in your desire to have a rainbow baby. Remember, there are many resources available to you; don’t be afraid to ask for help or seek out support. And, whatever you do, always look for the rainbow after a storm.
About the expert:
Aparna Iyer, MD, is a reproductive psychiatrist in Frisco, Texas. She previously served as assistant professor and chief resident at Albany Medical Center in Albany, New York. Iyer received her medical degree at St. George’s University in Grenada, West Indies.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.