Rainbow Babies: Navigating Pregnancy After Loss

“Rainbow babies” are often seen as miraculous, but pregnancy after loss isn’t always the calm after the storm.

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When she was seven weeks pregnant, Uma (who’s asked that we use a pseudonym) started spotting. She was prescribed bed rest, but the spotting soon became real bleeding. It felt like she was having menstrual cramps, but she soon miscarried in the middle of the night, over the toilet. “I remember trying desperately to keep it in,” she says. The first doctor she saw after the loss was “unspeakably cruel.” He refused to confirm that she’d miscarried, insisting she go to another facility although he clearly had the equipment to examine her. “It was winter, with lots of snow on the ground,” she says, “and I remember walking past heaps of it on the pavement and crying.” When she returned two weeks later for a follow-up, she lost it on the tram going to work. “My colleague held me for a long time at the tram stop without asking me what had happened. And then I went to a shopping mall stairwell and cried for another couple of hours. It did make me realize one thing, though: I actually really wanted a baby.” Two months later, she got pregnant with her son—her so-called rainbow baby—who is now 8. For some, however, a subsequent pregnancy doesn’t come so quickly (or at all): Keely Mitchell lost a pregnancy at eight weeks and another two years later at between six and eight weeks.  “When I discovered I was pregnant, everything in my world stopped and shifted. Suddenly I was planning for a whole new future,” she says. “Once I learned I had miscarried, it was all over. In a moment, my future just went back to where it had been. It was a strange and complicated mental shift. I felt lost.” Although she didn’t really grieve for the first loss, the second hit her hard. “We had been hoping to get pregnant again for two years, so I was excited and ready. I felt attached to this potential child, and I was devastated to lose them. The physical pain and visual proof of all the blood were so upsetting. And I knew I wanted to try again, but I was scared of losing another pregnancy. I just couldn’t fathom how much more of this grief I could take.” Five months later, however, she got pregnant with a girl, who is now 3.

What’s a rainbow baby?

“Rainbow baby” is a relatively new term coined for a baby born soon after a pregnancy loss: either a miscarriage or stillbirth. The term comes from the nature of rainbows—that they appear after a scary, dark storm and bring renewal and beauty back to the world. Without erasing the tumult that has come before, they bring new life and light to the world. Many women have found great comfort in the term—it feels truly miraculous. Although pregnancy loss is all too common—10 to 25 percent of clinically recognized pregnancies result in a loss—not every mom loves the term “rainbow baby.” “I associate rainbows with unicorns and light and fluffy things,” says Uma. “And what’s come before isn’t light and fluffy.” Mitchell agrees: “It feels too saccharine for me.”

What’s it like to be pregnant after a loss?

“During the second pregnancy, we were on tenterhooks,” says Uma. She had the same bleeding at eight weeks, but this time she went to a gynecologist who prescribed progesterone suppositories (progesterone supplements have been shown to decrease miscarriages). Although this pregnancy did not end in loss, it was not without struggle. “I did feel the loss of innocence. When I got the Down syndrome test back, it was quite a high percentage, and the doctor said I could do an amnio, but we didn’t because of the chance of miscarriage.” (Her son was not born with Down syndrome.) She also learned that you can hold two difficult truths at the same time: “That you lost something that would’ve turned into a person of endless possibilities and imaginings (for me, I think about if it was a girl). And that if that she had been allowed to develop fully, that your present child—with the real possibilities and imaginings—wouldn’t exist. Both hold equal weight.” For her part, Mitchell says, I was not able to feel much emotionally about my third pregnancy until I had made it through the first trimester. I was reluctant to get attached or have any hopes or dreams about the future until I felt I was through that window of likely miscarriage. I really didn’t get excited or think of the fetus as my child until I had my 20-week anatomy scan and saw my beautiful daughter moving on the ultrasound screen. When I saw her spine, I suddenly saw her future.” But you may not see that future until you are holding the baby in your arms, and that’s okay, too. “You may need to protect yourself emotionally,” says Mitchell. “If you can help it, don’t worry constantly about miscarriage again, though. I know that’s difficult, but it doesn’t really help. It can be tempting to read into things that are the same or different from the lost pregnancy—like you don’t feel morning sickness this time—but since every pregnancy can be so different, these things mean very little, and it is not terribly helpful for your state of mind.” Many women feel like they don’t have a right to be sad about a loss at six or eight weeks, but it’s important to grieve the loss, no matter how early it came. “It’s also okay to still grieve the loss even as you have your new child in your arms,” says Mitchell. “It can be a very confusing feeling to feel grief and excitement simultaneously.” She adds, however, that it’s okay to not grieve those past losses and just be excited about this new pregnancy. “If you are struggling with your feelings,” she says, “find someone you can talk to.”

How can I help a friend who is dealing with loss?

The most important thing you can do for a friend who is dealing with loss—and possibly a subsequent pregnancy or “rainbow baby”—is to follow her lead. She might want to talk and talk and talk. If so, let her. (Read: Do not advise or tell her how she should feel. Simply listen.) I felt much closer to women I’d known for ages but never known they’d had miscarriages,” says Uma. “When I opened up to them, they opened up to me.” Or she may not want to talk at all. “A woman who is pregnant after a loss might not want to hear your excitement because she isn’t excited yet, and it makes her nervous about the pregnancy,” Mitchell says. She may not want to talk about the pregnancy at all. In fact, I had a friend who suffered a miscarriage and then a late-term loss whose subsequent pregnancy went completely unmentioned until she was almost 30 weeks along (and unmistakably pregnant). On the other hand, a friend might need your vocal support and excitement. “Ask her, if you need to!” advises Mitchell. “If the pregnant person in your life has a partner, they might have completely different feelings about the past loss and current pregnancy. Ask them what they need, too.”

What do I do if I want to keep my pregnancy after loss a secret?

Many women save sharing news of a pregnancy until the end of the first trimester, when the risk of loss is lower. You may be someone who needs more support—telling your mother, sister, and friends as soon as you pee on a stick—but you may also want to keep the news between you and your partner for as long as you possibly can. That doesn’t mean you need to be alone in your worry and excitement. “An anonymous online pregnancy forum can be really helpful,” says Mitchell. “I found a lot of support in those groups, people I could talk to about how I was feeling or what I was worried about, or even just read their stories and not feel alone.”

Rainbow Babies: Navigating Pregnancy After Loss

Abigail Rasminsky
Abigail Rasminsky has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Cut, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Marie Claire, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.

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