What is a rainbow baby? How the term for children born after a pregnancy loss went mainstream.

  • "Rainbow baby" has become a popular term for children born after a pregnancy or infant loss. 
  • Some embrace the term and say it helps them to process their grief, while others say the term has no resonance for them.
  • The term dates back to 2008, and has become increasingly popular since.
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If you spend any time on social media, you've probably seen people using the term "rainbow baby." Some parents who have previously had a miscarriage, stillbirth or the loss of an infant embrace the term during subsequent pregnancies or when they have their baby. 

The idea is that after the emotional storm of a loss, the rainbow baby is the silver lining after the storm.

"For parents who have experienced the sting of loss, the term 'rainbow baby' is comforting because of the joy that they experience after hardship and pain whether recent or in the past," said Quantrilla Ard, PhD, who studies health psychology.

"It is a particular way to celebrate and honor the life of their child without specifically explaining the circumstances surrounding their birth."

The term 'rainbow baby' is now mainstream

The term rainbow baby has gone beyond social media. In 2018, dictionary.com added the term to its All The Words section, which captures up-and-coming words that aren't yet embraced in the formal dictionary, according to John Kelly, senior research editor at the site. Since then, the word has become even more popular. 

"By this point, the term 'rainbow baby,' thanks in large part to parenting forums online and the efforts of many mothers to destigmatize miscarriages, had spread into the mainstream lexicon," Kelly said.

The use of the term stems back to at least 2008. That year, the term appeared in a story collected in Christie Brooks's book "Our Heartbreaking Choices: Forty-Six Women Share Their Stories of Interrupting a Much-Wanted Pregnancy," he said.  

As women in particular began speaking out about the term, it became solidified. 

"There are more families who are sharing their stories of loss and joy on social media platforms as well as in real life, which includes the use of the term rainbow baby," Ard said. "Sharing pregnancy loss and infant death has been a very sensitive and taboo topic for years. Now families are coming to recognize that they are not alone. They are finding that there is great strength in community, and sharing their stories connects them to others rather than isolates them."

For some, the term falls short

When Karie Fugett of Drain, Oregon, had a miscarriage over ten years ago, she thought she would never have another pregnancy. 

"It was so devastated by it I swore I'd never have kids. I just didn't want to risk feeling that grief again," she said. 

Today, Fugett is 24 weeks pregnant. She recently came across the term "rainbow baby" in online groups, but the idea did not resonate with her.  

"I don't feel connected to the term at all and avoid conversations about rainbow babies in mom groups," Fugett said. "It's triggering for me, I think. I don't want to constantly be reminded of the loss I experienced every time I think about this little girl. I'm just trying to enjoy this separate, very special experience on it's own."

Identifying with the term 'rainbow baby'

For other women, the term brings a sense of solace.

When Caila Smith's daughter died of SIDS, she questioned whether she should have more children.

"Losing my daughter made me feel like I was doomed as a mother, almost as if I wasn't good enough or worthy enough to have another baby," said Smith, who lives in Indiana. 

Just four months after her daughter's death, Smith found out that she was pregnant with twins. She was consumed by worry, but embracing the idea of rainbow babies brought her comfort. 

"The 'rainbow baby' term gave me something hopeful to hold onto," she said. "I decided early on that I could spend my entire pregnancy obsessing over every single 'what if' scenario out there, or I could enjoy my babies no matter how long they were going to be with me."

Smith has two sets of twins. Her older children, born before her daughter's death, will be six soon, while her rainbow twins are three. She still feels like the term rainbow babies fits them well.

"It reminded me that seasons change, and that I was carrying different children who would live out a different story from their sister," she said. "They were born happy and healthy, and the light they have given our family lives up to the 'rainbow baby' title."

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