Every pregnancy and birth is accompanied by its own set of challenges. But for some parents, previous loss can make going through another pregnancy particularly trying. In these cases, it's helpful to know the differences between rainbow babies and sunshine babies. Because sometimes, the expectant parents of rainbow babies may face hidden troubles.
Before getting into the distinctions, it's important to understand the terminology used for these children. “Sunshine babies are the babies that were born before the loss — because they can provide happiness and light during an otherwise dark and difficult time, just like sunshine,” Diana Spalding, midwife, pediatric nurse, and Motherly's digital education editor, tells Romper via email. Sometimes known as miracle babies, rainbow babies can put parents in a different frame of mind. “Rainbow babies are babies that have been born after a miscarriage, fetal loss, stillbirth, or neonatal death,” Dr. Temeka K. Zore, reproductive endocrinologist and board-certified OB/GYN with RMA Network, tells Romper. “They are termed ‘rainbow babies’ because they are the light at the end of the storm after dealing with loss.” The baby lost is commonly referred to as the angel baby.
To begin, parents of rainbow babies face a number of challenges on a personal level. “Expecting and welcoming a rainbow baby poses a unique challenge for families in that it can often come with a lot of mixed emotions. While they may be delighted to have this new bundle of joy on the way, they may still mourn the loss of their pregnancy or child,” explains Spalding. Additionally, these parents may also have an intense fear of something going wrong with the rainbow baby as well. “It can also be hard to fully embrace the news of a new pregnancy because once you’ve experienced the heartache of a loss, you know all too well how devastating it can be,” she adds. These parents can be left in a vulnerable space.
Additionally, parents of rainbow babies may deal with their grief in an extremely private way. Because some still view miscarriage and stillbirth as somewhat taboo, these parents may not have sufficient support from friends and family. In fact, their acquaintances may not even know about the loss that preceded the rainbow baby. This can make the parents of a rainbow baby feel even more alone in their loss. However, reaching out to trusted loved ones during this time may help take some of the pressure off these parents. “Family and friends can be extremely valuable for emotional support when helping someone they love through a miscarriage,” says Zore. Whether it’s a literal shoulder to cry on, or just someone to sit by in silence, grieving parents can benefit from reaching out to their support system.
Lastly, social interactions with well-meaning people can further complicate feelings of parents with a rainbow baby. Even a simple question about the number of children you have can lead to quite the dilemma. Do you mention the infant who passed away young, and risk making an everyday question deeply personal? Or do you leave out any mention of your child who passed, further entrenching those feelings of private grief? There is no easy answer.
Also, for what it's worth, parenting a sunshine baby is not always, well, sunshine. The parent is dealing with the grief of a miscarriage or other loss while still trying to raise their first child. It can also be a confusing, trying experience, although parents should never make themselves feel guilty about these emotions, as Zore explains.
Every parent has to work hard at the task of raising a child. But it's helpful to remember that, for parents of sunshine and rainbow babies, all of the work that comes with raising a baby often includes some difficult feelings about love, loss, and new life as well.
Diana Spalding, midwife, pediatric nurse, founder of Gathered Birth, author of The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama: Redefining the Pregnancy, Birth, and Postpartum Journey
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