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Supporting Families Through Pregnancy and Infant Loss: Understanding the Symbols and Terms

The loss of a child during pregnancy or infancy is an unimaginable tragedy that affects many families across the world. As you navigate the world of pregnancy and infant loss, whether as a grieving parent or someone comforting them, you may come across some terms and symbols you don’t recognize. These symbols are often used to describe experiences and emotions related to such a loss. They can be a powerful way to connect with others who have had similar experiences. Understanding their meaning can provide solace for grieving families and a way for loved ones to show their support.

If you haven’t experienced the loss of a baby, it can be hard to know how to help someone who is. You want to do something, anything to comfort them, but you’re not sure what will help. The main thing you can do is just be there for the grieving parents. Provide a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand, or whatever they need. Something else that might help is being familiar with some of the terms that they or others use to describe this kind of loss.

You may have heard the phrases “angel baby,” “purple butterfly,” “leaf with a single drop,” “sunshine baby,” or “rainbow baby.” But if you’re like many, you’re not exactly sure what they mean. Each term or symbol represents a unique aspect of this journey. Some express sorrow, some inspire hope, but all try to put into words the grief that comes with the loss of a baby. I hope that discussing these terms will help you understand what makes them so meaningful to families who have walked this path.

A mirror with "Miscarriage is not a failure" written on it.
Photo by Huha Inc. on Unsplash

Angel baby:

One of the most common terms associated with miscarriage and infant loss is the angel baby. It’s often used to refer to a baby who has passed away before birth or in infancy. Many parents commemorate their lost babies with pillows, tattoos, ornaments, or blankets featuring angels. The idea of an angel baby can provide comfort to parents, as it suggests their baby is now being cared for by angels.

However, steer away from saying things like “Now you will have an angel in heaven” and “Your baby is in a better place now.” While these statements are well-intentioned, the words can feel empty, dismissive, or even patronizing to the grieving parents. If the parents themselves talk about their lost child as an angel, then it can be okay for you to voice similar thoughts, as it might bring them comfort. But you should never be the first person to say something like these phrases.

A pillow with a poem about an angel baby.
A blanket with the name and birthdate of a stillborn baby.

Sometimes, when parents have already bought clothes for their little one, they want to use those clothes in some way to celebrate and memorialize their lost baby. One way of doing so is with a memory bear. A memory bear is a stuffed bear made with the clothing of a deceased loved one. Some families wish to have a weighted bear, which is custom made to be the baby’s birth weight. This is a therapeutic gift that can help ease the physical ache mothers have to hold their baby.

Purple Butterfly/Leaf with a Single Drop

Sometimes the grief of losing a baby is a little more complicated, such as when a woman is pregnant with twins and only one survives. Parents obviously feel joy about the birth of one baby, but the happiness can be overshadowed by the heartbreak of losing the other one. The “purple butterfly” symbol was created to protect those grieving parents. It tells people that one or more babies who were part of a multiple pregnancy (twins, triplets, etc.) did not survive.

The symbol arose from the grief of one mom, after one of her twins died. She wanted to save other grieving families from the onslaught of questions, pity, and condolences that she received. Now, the purple butterfly is seen on hospital doors and cribs to let friends, family members, medical personnel, and other patients know that the baby in there lost a twin/triplet sibling. This helps remind people that they shouldn’t talk about babies in the hallway, and to maybe be a little quieter around that room so that the parents have time and space to grieve.

Many families choose to incorporate the purple butterfly into their memorialization of their baby or child. They use the symbol on memorial items such as jewelry, art, or even tattoos. Some parents believe that when a butterfly appears, it’s a sign their child is okay and at peace. This is why some families choose to release live butterflies at memorial services or create butterfly gardens in memory of their little one.

A purple butterfly on a baby's crib at a hospital.

Another symbol, the “leaf with a single drop,” is used in a similar way. The only difference is that it’s used for a single baby and not a baby that’s part of a multiple pregnancy. Like the purple butterfly, this symbol is put on the door or window of a Labor and Delivery room to let people walking by know that there are grieving parents in the room. The imagery represents the idea that just as a tree loses its leaves, a mother has lost her child. The single drop symbolizes the tears shed by those who have experienced the loss.

Sunshine baby:

Many times, a pregnancy or infant loss happens after a mother has already given birth to a child or children. These children, the ones born before a miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss, are called “sunshine babies.” A sunshine baby represents the light and the calm before the storm. For grieving parents, their sunshine baby can serve as a reminder that they did bring a baby to full term. This means that it’s possible they could do it again, which can be a comforting thought for some.

Photo by Brian Garcia on Unsplash

However, like with the term “angel baby,” it’s important that you don’t say things about any sunshine children the parents might have, such as “At least you still have your other child(ren).” Even though it’s a true statement, it does nothing to help a family struggling with the loss of a child. No child will ever replace or be a substitute for another child. If the parents bring up their sunshine baby first and find comfort in talking about that with you, then it can be okay to do so. Otherwise, tread cautiously and lovingly.

Pregnancy and infant loss is obviously devastating for parents, but it affects children too. After all, sunshine babies have lost their sibling. Depending on how old they are, that can be incredibly hard to cope with. If you’re not sure how to talk to your children about death, check out Useful Tips to Help Kids Deal with Death.

Rainbow Baby:

Perhaps the most well-known term in the pregnancy and infant loss community is “rainbow baby.” A rainbow baby is a baby born after a loss, representing the beauty that can come after difficult times. This term comes from the idea that a rainbow appears after a storm, symbolizing the promise of a new beginning.

For parents who have experienced the heartbreak of a miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss, the idea of having a rainbow baby can be terrifying. What if something goes wrong again? What if they lose this baby too? However, the thought of having a rainbow baby can also be a source of comfort and hope. It acknowledges the pain and loss that came before, while also celebrating the new life that is to come.

Many parents choose to commemorate their rainbow babies with rainbow-themed nursery décor, photoshoots, or even tattoos. It’s a way to honor the journey they’ve been through and celebrate the love and joy that their rainbow baby brings.

Rainbow baby sensory blanket featuring rainbows and babies along with "After every storm there is a rainbow of hope."
Rainbow baby swaddle doll with pink hair from Kidderbug Kreations is perfect for your little rainbow baby's first doll.

While the term “rainbow baby” can feel like a bright spot in a difficult journey, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t diminish the pain of previous losses. Each child and each pregnancy is unique, and the journey to parenthood is different for everyone. If you have experienced a loss and are now expecting a rainbow baby, know that you are not alone. There is a community of parents who understand the mixture of joy and grief that comes with this journey, and who are there to support you along the way.

Final Thoughts

Losing a baby is a devastating tragedy that no one should have to go through. Yet, the unfortunate reality is that many parents do. Odds are, you almost certainly know someone who has experienced pregnancy and infant loss (or maybe you have yourself). The use of symbols like the ones listed in this post can offer a sense of comfort and solidarity to those navigating this difficult journey. This is why it’s good to know them if you are supporting a grieving family.

If you’ve been touched by the experiences of families who have experienced child loss and want to support them, take action now. You have the power to make a difference with your words, your kindness, and your empathy. Share your own story, volunteer your time, or simply show your support in any way you can. Oftentimes, that just means listening to and being with those who are grieving.

If you’re looking for bereavement gifts for someone who has lost a baby, Kidderbug Kreations offers custom gifts that can help comfort parents and memorialize their baby. For more tips on handling grief, and to get our free guide, Loving Through Loss: Resources for Grief Support​, be sure to look at our other blog posts.

Loving Through Loss: Resources for Grief Support

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