October is Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Month, a month that we take to acknowledge the grief of parents, families, and communities that experience the loss of a child due to stillbirth, miscarriage, SIDS, or any other cause at any point during pregnancy or infancy.
These losses impact tens of thousands of families and their communities each year. However, these deaths are often left unacknowledged, sometimes even treated as a secret. Promoting awareness of pregnancy loss and infant deaths can help make space for people to experience and process this very unique kind of grief.
Sunshine Babies, Angel Babies, and Rainbow Babies
The way that we discuss the loss of a pregnancy or baby can matter a lot. Words have power, and they can change the way we view a past event, helping us process the emotional aftermath. Thus the terms Sunshine Baby, Angel Baby, and Rainbow Baby.
An Angel Baby is a word used to refer to a lost pregnancy or infant. Losing a pregnancy or baby comes with terrible grief, and while using the term “Angel Baby” cannot eliminate that grief (nothing can), it may help some people reframe this traumatic event in a way that doesn’t carry blame or shame for the parent.
Sunshine Babies are babies that were born before the lost pregnancy or infant. When a family loses a pregnancy or experiences the death of a baby, it’s possible to be overwhelmed by grief. A Sunshine Baby can give the parent and family a thing to focus on that is outside of that grief, helping a bereaved family remember that there is hope for the future. Families that lose babies can experience an internalization of blame, wondering what they could have done to prevent the loss. A Sunshine Baby can help remind a grieving mother that they aren’t somehow flawed or broken in light of a lost pregnancy or infant.
Rainbow Babies are babies born after an Angel Baby. Some women who experience the loss of a pregnancy or baby wonder if they’ll ever have another baby, and the birth of a Rainbow Baby represents a denial of this thought. The Rainbow Baby represents a clearing after a storm of sadness and loss, and hope for the future.
If someone who has experienced this kind of loss is comforted by the use of these terms, using them can help the family or parent in question heal from that loss.
Grief and Loss: How to Help
If you have someone in your community who has experienced the loss of a pregnancy or baby, there are some ways that you can help them process their grief and begin to heal.
Be Present - Be there if the grieving person needs to talk, or if they just need company. You may not know what to say, and that’s totally normal. But being there for them to talk to or to be with matters.
Use the Baby’s Name - If the baby already had a name, using it is important. Basically, refer to the Angel Baby with whatever name the parent asks.
Invite Them To Talk About the Baby - Actually talking about the lost baby can help. Even for those that died before birth, talking about their hopes and dreams for the child can help the grieving parent process their grief.
Acknowledge Them as Parents - Parents who, after this kind of loss, no longer have living children may feel a loss of identity as parents. Reaffirming their status as parents can help ease that pain.
Offer a Keepsake or Memorial Item - If the Angel Baby had a name, providing a keepsake with that name on it can be deeply meaningful to the grieving family.
Remember That Everyone Grieves Differently - Grieving, especially grieving the loss of a child, is a deeply personal process. This process will look different from person to person, and even from loss to loss. Don’t be judgemental of how someone is grieving; support them.
Rainbow Babies Don’t Replace Angel Babies - should the bereaved family have a healthy delivery of a Rainbow Baby, this will not erase the grief from the loss of the prior child. You should never expect parents of a Rainbow Baby to “get over” the loss of a previous child.
Offer Time and Help - when a family has lost a baby, it may be very difficult to manage even day-to-day tasks. Offer to help out around the house, or to bring over a meal for the family. After the memorial services are held, many of these offers vanish, so keep offering your support after the memorial services.
Fetal and Infant Mortality Across the Nation
The United States ranks 54th for infant mortality, right in between Romania and Qatar. Leading causes of infant mortality in the US include: premature or low birth weight conditions, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and maternal pregnancy complications. Obviously not all of these can be prevented, but with access to maternal and pediatric health care and comprehensive education about maternal and infant health, they can certainly be reduced.
I asked Kathryn Drennan, Assistant Professor of Maternal Fetal Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical School, what she thought could be done to help reduce our fetal/infant/maternal mortality rates, and she said, “... we have a lot of maternal illness and death that is either the result of poverty or the result of medical conditions that people didn’t get care for (often both), so affordable universal health care would probably be extremely helpful.”
The data bear this out. Fetal/Infant mortality is higher for those living in poverty, and it is higher for those in rural areas than in urban areas. These rates are also higher for Black and Indigenous communities.
An organization called Every Mother Counts is working hard to help. They work with partners that expand access to maternal and pediatric care, and organizations that offer trained midwife and doula services to underserved populations, relieving some of the pressure on strained healthcare systems.You can check out the work that Every Mother Counts is doing, and if you want to support their efforts, you can also donate to them.