'Rainbow baby,' 'sunshine baby': After pregnancy or infant loss, grieving moms find comfort in these coded terms and symbols

Pregnant woman in perspective with a rainbow
From "rainbow baby" to purple butterflies, women who have experienced the loss of a pregnancy or infant say there are terms and symbols within the infant loss community that have helped them process their grief. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Jenn Boonsom recalls thinking that getting pregnant would be a simple process, but for the California mom, the road was more difficult than expected. In 2016, at seven weeks pregnant with her first child, Boonsom suffered a miscarriage and was shocked when her doctor shared statistics that let her know she was not alone.

"Despite how common miscarriage and pregnancy loss is, it's often never spoken about," Boonsom tells Yahoo Life. "We were so early in the pregnancy that no one really knew we were pregnant, so when we lost our baby it felt like the most isolating thing. I was suffering in silence and had to carry on like nothing ever happened."

A few months later, Boonsom and her husband, Peter, became pregnant a second time and were thrilled when the pregnancy progressed past the first trimester.

"We ended up announcing this second pregnancy to everyone and just as we started to feel like everything would be all right, we were hit with tragedy once again," Boonsom recalls, "At 22 weeks, we learned we were having a baby boy, but he had a severe congenital heart defect and passed away."

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, a time for families who have experienced a loss to remember their child. But after the loss of her second baby, Boonsom began sharing openly about her experience on social media year-round, giving followers a glimpse into the private pain she'd experienced on her journey to motherhood.

In a time of darkness, Boonsom says she found a way to share her story with the world and help other women and families feel less alone.

"Something crazy happened," Boonsom explains. "In the midst of starting to share our story publicly, I started to get messages of love, hope and connectedness from others."

Boonsom says messages from other women who had been through similar experiences gave her hope. And, in the same week she would have welcomed her son into the world, Boonsom found out she was pregnant again.

Jenn Boonsom with her husband, Peter, and their son, Ben, 4. (Photo: Jenn Boonsom)
Jenn Boonsom with her husband, Peter, and their son, Ben, 4. (Photo: Jenn Boonsom)

Boonsom's "rainbow baby," the name given to a baby born after the "storm" of a loss, was born in December 2017.

"Our family is forever shaped by our journey," Boonsom says of her son, Ben's birth and her earlier pregnancies. "We're thankful for making it through the storms and finding our rainbow."

Amanda Smith is founder of Project Robby, an organization that's mission is "to give parents something special to hold onto when they are no longer able to hold their baby" by providing bereavement sets to parents following a loss.

Smith's own son, Robby, was born prematurely in February 2012 at 23 weeks gestation.

"He only lived for two hours," says Smith, who lives in Kansas. "The nurse who was with us when he died searched high and low for a hat that might come close to fitting his tiny head, but even the smallest one they had just completely engulfed it. Although [the hat] was too big for him, it brought so much comfort to me and my husband because it was his. It became a source of comfort for me during my most difficult days of grief."

The hat and the kind gesture from her nurse are where Smith found the inspiration for Project Robby.

"I wrote out Robby's story [on Facebook] and asked my friends and family to help us collect 50 hats and 50 blankets to donate to the hospital where he was born," says Smith. "I honestly wasn't even sure we would make that goal, but I knew we at least had to try."

Smith's post was shared around the world and, with the assistance of family and friends, she was able to surpass her original goal, donating 13 large bins filled with tiny hats and blankets to her local hospital for "angel babies," a name Project Robby uses to refer to babies who have died.

Word of Smith's work got out to hospitals around the nation, and what was meant to be a one-time donation turned into something bigger. Today, Project Robby sends out keepsake sets to hospitals for bereaved parents: each of which contains a hat, blanket and set of angel wings that is the appropriate size for their baby. Since 2018, Project Robby has provided more than 11,000 bereavement sets to parents who have lost a child anywhere between 4 and 36 weeks gestation.

Amanda Smith's
Amanda Smith's "rainbow babies," her daughters Delphine, 9, and Alice Ruth, 5. Smith's son, Robby, died after being born premature in 2012. (Photo: Amanda Smith)

Smith has since had two rainbow babies of her own, daughters, Delphine, 9, and Alice Ruth, 5. Smith says, while she's grateful for her daughters, she often reminds others that rainbow babies are not replacements: each child and each loss is unique and deserves to be remembered.

It's those attempts — both at remembering babies who have been lost and giving parents space to grieve — that have brought terms like "rainbow baby" and "angel baby" as well as various symbols of loss to the forefront of the pregnancy and infant loss community.

For Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, Yahoo Life asked Boonsom and Smith to explain some symbols and terminology associated with pregnancy and infant loss.

Rainbow baby: A child born after a pregnancy loss. "That's because they say 'after the storm comes a rainbow,'" says Boonsom, "the storm being the difficult journey of the loss and the rainbow being a healthy baby born after that loss."

After experiencing two losses, Jenn Boonsom's son, Ben, was born in 2017. (Photo: Jenn Boonsom)
After experiencing two losses, Jenn Boonsom's son, Ben, was born in 2017. (Photo: Jenn Boonsom)

Sunshine baby: "A baby born before you encountered a loss," explains Boonsom, "as it refers to the calm before the storm."

Angel baby: "At Project Robby, we refer to a baby who has died as an angel baby," says Smith.

Purple butterfly on a hospital crib: "This is to signify that a living baby was part of multiples and unfortunately their sibling did not survive," Smith explains. This practice stems from The Butterfly Project, originally started by a group of medical professionals from the U.K. to improve patient care by acknowledging the loss of one or more babies in a multiple birth pregnancy.

After Amanda Smith's son, Robby, died in 2012, the Kansas mom started Project Robby, a non-profit organization that provides bereavement kits for parents who have lost a baby. (Photo: Amanda Smith)
After Amanda Smith's son, Robby, died in 2012, the Kansas mom started Project Robby, a non-profit organization that provides bereavement kits for parents who have lost a baby. (Photo: Amanda Smith)

Leaf with a single drop: "Some hospitals put a picture of a leaf with a single drop on the door of a hospital room to help staff know that the family inside will not be taking their baby home," says Smith, who adds that hospitals have other ways of alerting hospital staff to a family's loss.

"I personally had a blue material heart that hung on the outside of my hospital room door," she explains. "I did not know that it was there until later when I was going through the things from the hospital and my family told me what it was."

This story was originally published on Oct. 26, 2021 at 12:12pm E.T.

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