The Meaning Behind Purple Butterfly Stickers In Hospitals

Stickers and decorations are familiar sights at the maternity center of a hospital. But hundreds of hospitals across the world have the same symbol: a purple butterfly. Have you ever wondered what this sticker means?

The purple butterfly symbol has a tragic story behind it–the real-life story of Millie Smith and her twin daughters. It’s a sad story, but it ended in Millie changing the world for the better. Read on to discover the true meaning behind the purple butterfly.

The Purple Butterflies In Hospitals

A purple butterfly sticker is on a cot in a hospital.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

If you’ve ever visited a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), you may have seen many stickers and photos taped onto babies’ cribs. One common sticker is a purple butterfly. Many parents don’t know what this sticker means, or the heartbreaking story behind it.

Purple butterfly stickers began when one baby only survived for three hours. But her short life was long enough to make a difference. The mother of this child started a movement that would spread to hospitals worldwide.

Meet The Parents, Millie And Lewis

The couple Millie and Lewis pose together.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

It all started in November 2016. Millie Smith and her husband, Lewis Cann, discovered that Millie was pregnant. The mother-to-be had a “gut feeling” that they were twins. Since twins run in her family, this wouldn’t come as a surprise.

She was right. Ten weeks in, she discovered that she was having twin girls. The parents were ecstatic! However, their joy would only last for two months. Millie and Lewis could never have predicted the tragedy that awaited them.

The Heartbreaking News

Millie and Lewis celebrate the gender reveal of their children.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

Twelve weeks into the pregnancy, Millie and Lewis visited the hospital for an ultrasound examination. “During the scan, the doctor didn’t say anything,” Millie later told TODAY. “I was very excited and loved seeing the little babies, but she was silent.”

The parents knew that something was wrong. The doctor eventually broke the news–that one of their babies had a condition called anencephaly, which has no cure. Sadly, the hospital could do nothing to help them.

What Would Happen To The Baby?

A baby is wrapped in a purple butterfly blanket.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

Anencephaly is a congenital disability that can be fatal. It is when the neural tube, which helps the baby’s brain and skull grow, does not close all the way. The result is that the baby’s skull and brain do not develop fully.

In the US, one in 4,600 babies is born with anencephaly. There is no known treatment, and the baby cannot survive after birth. For Lewis and Millie, this meant that one of their daughters would inevitably die.

Would They Go Through With The Pregnancy?

Millie Smith and Lewis Cann pose with their daughter, Callie.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

The Cann parents had to struggle through this devastating news. After birth–when most parents would be celebrating their children–their daughter would not survive beyond a few hours. Knowing this, would they go through with the pregnancy?

After many emotional discussions, Millie and Lewis decided to move forward. They knew that anencephaly posed a risk, not just for the delivery, but also for the other baby. But these parents were willing to take the risk.

Naming Her Anyway

Balloons welcome infant Callie home.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

Although the twin with anencephaly would not survive, the parents decided to name her. “We knew that Skye needed to have a name before she was born,” Millie said. “Knowing she would only survive for seconds or minutes, I wanted her to be named during that time.”

They named the healthy twin Callie and the twin with anencephaly Skye. “Skye was somewhere we knew she would always be, that we could look up at the sky and remember our baby.”

Waiting For The Inevitable

Lewis and Millie are pictured at a Skye High event.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

With Skye’s death hanging over their heads, Millie and Lewis could do nothing but wait until labor. “Dealing with it and preparing for it was hard,” Millie told Babble. “But the more we talked about it, the more ready we were.”

The Canns also prepared their family and friends for the future. “I spoke about Callie and Skye on a daily basis at work and ensured that no one felt awkward talking about my pregnancy,” Millie continued. “I got to enjoy my pregnancy and got to look forward to meeting them.”

The Birth

A doctor holds Skye shortly after labor.
YouTube/Extreme Trends
YouTube/Extreme Trends

On April 30th, 2016, Millie went into labor. The parents rushed to Kingston Hospital in Surrey, UK, along with their bereavement midwife, Jo Bull. Being thirty weeks into her pregnancy, she had an early birth and required an emergency C-section.

The birth went better than expected. When the twins were born, they both cried. This was a huge moment for the parents, as they were told that Skye would remain silent and unmoving. The girl had fight in her.

Skye’s First And Final Moments

Millie holds her newborn, Skye, just after birth.
Pinterest/Babble
Pinterest/Babble

After the birth, the Canns moved to the “Daisy Room,” where families can spend time with their babies before they die. Millie and Lewis spent only three hours with Skye. They called it “the worst moment of [their] lives.”

Millie and Lewis cuddled with Skye and talked to her. “We told [Skye] how much we loved her,” Millie told Us Weekly. “And I told her I was sorry that I hadn’t created her properly…We told her she would never be forgotten.”

Two Sisters, Together

Skye spends her final moments with her twin sister, Callie.
Twitter/@ViraliaMx
Twitter/@ViraliaMx

Although the parents wanted to spend every possible moment with Skye, Millie was still recovering from a C-section. She was bed-bound, and after a few hours, she had to head to the emergency room. Meanwhile, Lewis took Skye to join her sister, Callie, in the intensive care unit.

Skye joined Callie in the incubator for only a few moments. Eventually, Skye died. Millie had missed her child’s passing. “This is the one moment I wish I had seen,” she later said.

The Importance Of A Midwife

Millie interacts with her newborn daughter, Skye, after labor.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

Throughout this tragic event, Millie couldn’t help but feel guilty. “I felt like it was my fault. I knew it wasn’t, but I always felt guilty.” To help the parents through the grief, midwife Jo Bull stayed with the parents through the birth and after Skye passed away.

Midwives like Jo help parents through the death of their child. In this case, the parents knew early on, so Jo remained with them throughout the process. But their bereavement still took a toll.

Soon, People Forgot About Skye

Skye sleeps in blankets soon after birth.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

After Skye’s passing, the surviving twin, Callie, remained in the NICU for weeks after birth. Millie and Lewis frequently visited their daughter. But while staff and visitors were kind to them, people soon forgot about the tragedy that the Canns endured.

“As time passed, people stopped talking about Skye,” Millie told TODAY. “After about four weeks, everyone acted as though nothing had happened, meaning the families around me had no idea about our situation.” This would only lead to trouble.

The Comment That Changed Her Life

Millie takes a pictures with her daughter Callie in a stroller.
Twitter/@TheSkyeHighFdn
Twitter/@TheSkyeHighFdn

One morning, Millie encountered another mother of twins in the NICU. The mother, clearly exhausted and unaware of Millie’s experience, turned to her and said, “You are so lucky you don’t have twins.”

“Up until this point, I hadn’t cried in front of any of these parents,” Millie said. “But that was it. I ran out of the room in tears, and they had no idea why. The comment absolutely broke me. I didn’t have the guts to go back in and tell her our story.”

It Was A Mistake…But It Still Hurt

Parents Lewis and Millie pose with their daughter, Callie.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

Millie knew that this new mother hadn’t intended to hurt her feelings. The comment wasn’t meant to be spiteful and was probably more out of jest, but it was heartbreaking,” Millie told Us Weekly.

“I know the mother would have felt bad if she knew how her words affected me,” she told the BBC. But Millie was so consumed with grief that she couldn’t tell others what had happened. This moment changed her life for the better.

The Beginning Of The Purple Butterfly

Parents Millie and Lewis both take photos with Skye.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

After that incident, Millie was determined not to let this situation happen to other mothers. She had to invent a way to “tell” hospital visitors what had happened without saying it. But how could she do that?

Millie decided to create a poster for the hospital. The sign would alert staff and visitors that the parents had undergone the death of one or more multiple-birth siblings. To simplify it, Millie needed a symbol. This is where the purple butterfly came in.

The Meaning Of The Butterfly

Skye high blankets have purple butterflies embroidered on them.
Twitter/@TheSkyeHighFdn
Twitter/@TheSkyeHighFdn

Millie chose the butterfly symbol for a specific reason. “I chose butterflies because as I felt it was fitting to remember the babies that flew away,” the mother said. It was also discreet enough not to scare other mothers away.

The color purple represented all babies. While pink is traditionally used for girls as blue is for boys, purple signifies all children. Millie printed the symbol onto a poster and pitched it to her hospital.

Transforming Kingston Hospital

A purple butterfly sticker decorates a baby's cot in a hospital.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

The staff at Kingston Hospital loved Millie’s idea. They alerted the doctors and nurses, and soon, purple butterfly stickers appeared on hospital cots, cribs, and windows.

Millie appreciated how Kingston Hospital used her idea. She and Lewis decided to expand this mission to other hospitals across the country. To do so, they would need to create an organization and spread the word. Although neither parent had experience in nonprofit organizations, they dove into it in honor of Skye.

The Skye High Foundation

The Skye High Foundation logo is pictured.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

To spread their purple butterfly idea, Millie and Lewis found the Skye High Foundation. The foundation not only spread purple butterflies, but they provided aid for parents in need. They supplied care kits for families who have to struggle through hard times.

“Charity work was something very new to me as I was very career-focused,” Mille admitted to the BBC. “It was my way of dealing with what had happened; it was a turning point for me.”

What They Raised Money For

A purple butterfly poster is next to a baby.
Pinterest/Helena Smith
Pinterest/Helena Smith

The Canns wanted to help other parents, but how? Beyond the butterfly stickers, Lewis and Millie decided to hire a counselor for Kingston Hospital. The parents’ midwife, Jo, inspired this choice. Millie emphasized that “every hospital needs someone like her.”

While Jo was great, Millie still asserts that she is not a counselor. Hospitals need professional counselors to aid parents through the grieving and funeral process. Hence, Millie and Lewis aimed to raise £10,000 (around $12,500).

How Can They Spread The Word?

Millie Smith poses for a social media post to raise money for a bereavement counsellor.
Twitter/@TheSkyeHighFdn
Twitter/@TheSkyeHighFdn

But forming the Skye High Foundation was only half the battle. Millie had to encourage people to donate, so she posted on Facebook. She created the Skye High Foundation Facebook group and advertised her butterfly idea.

They posted their sticker idea on Facebook. They described their journey as a family and explained the need to hire a counselor for bereaved parents. After the posts were made, they could only pray that others would support it.

How Butterflies Spread Like Wildfire

Crocheted butterflies from the Skye High Foundation sit on a table.
Twitter/@TheSkyHighFdn
Twitter/@TheSkyHighFdn

The Skye High Foundation quickly caught on. Thousands of people shared Millie’s Facebook post, and many parents told stories of their children who passed away. Before the couple could process what had happened, they had raised enough money for a Kingston Hospital counselor.

And that’s not all. They raised an extra $6,000 to print more butterfly stickers. This was far more than they needed to fund Kingston Hospital. Fortunately, more hospitals began to approach the parents about their idea.

Soon, Hospitals Across The Country Got The Stickers

A nurse interviews in front of a patient's room with a purple butterfly on it.
YouTube/North Bristol NHS Trust
YouTube/North Bristol NHS Trust

Other hospitals caught on almost as quickly as Facebook did. In the year after Skye’s birth, 115 hospitals reached out to Millie, wanting to implement the idea. “I thought it would just be our local hospital!” Millie joyfully admitted.

As the stickers became more common, hospitals found another way to display the butterflies. They created a template design that staff printed as laminates. The staff could reuse the poster, or parents could take it home if they wished.

Explaining The Butterfly To Patients

A poster explains the purple butterfly logo in a hospital.
YouTube/Coconut Cable
YouTube/Coconut Cable

Some hospitals have erected signs to explain the butterfly symbol. These signs (designed by the Skye High Foundation) silently tell visitors what the butterfly means to spare mourning parents from awkward conversations. The poster says:

“When visiting this hospital either as a patient, partner, relative, or friends, please be aware of the butterfly logo, which may be on some cots or incubators. This represents a baby that was part of a multiple pregnancy, but sadly not all the babies survived.”

And Researchers Reached Out Too

Purple butterflies hang in a hospital to commemorate World Prematurity Day.
Twitter/@EastTNChildrens
Twitter/@EastTNChildrens

As the purple butterfly idea caught on, researchers also took notice. Millie was eventually contacted by a group called Neonatal Research. This group of scientists from Newcastle, UK, conduct experiments to hopefully prevent the death of babies in the future.

With this new partnership, the Skye High Foundation began funding research as well. Soon, Millie and Lewis created a website for the Skye High Foundation, where others can donate to research, parental aid kits, and purple butterfly stickers.

Why We Should Talk About Baby Death More

The Canns celebrate Callie's first birthday with a candle on a cake.
YouTube/Extreme Trends
YouTube/Extreme Trends

Millie believes that the butterfly sticker is only half the subject. She asserts that people need to be more willing to talk about infant death. “The more we talk to friends, family, and others, the more likely you might hear from someone who has gone through the same thing,” she said.

Millie adds that, although infant death is prevalent, it’s still a taboo topic. “People don’t talk about a loss of a baby–they feel awkward. Even some nurses don’t know what to say.”

Helping Others–As Well As Herself

Millie and Lewis hold up cards with purple butterflies with other Skye High members.
Twitter/@TheSkyeHighFdn
Twitter/@TheSkyeHighFdn

The Skye High Foundation does more than help families; it starts the conversation. During Millie’s experience, she suffered more when people wouldn’t talk to her about it. “Some days, I didn’t want to talk about it, and some days I did,” she told the Sutton & Croydon Guardian.

“The last thing people want who are going through this is for people to be ignoring it,” midwife Jo said. “It is terribly upsetting.” By starting this foundation, Millie has connected with other parents who went through the same thing.

Remembering Skye And Other Babies

Prints of Skye Cann's hands and feet are seen.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

The Skye High Foundation ensures that lost babies are never forgotten. The foundation’s website has a “Butterfly stories” tab that tells the tales of other infants like Skye.

One child was Harry, a twin brother who died suddenly and unexpectedly after birth. The other child, Freya, died 15 minutes after birth from pataus syndrome. Both sets of parents found the Skye High Foundation during their darkest days. Although these stories are sad, they remind parents that they can work through the pain.

Within Years, Purple Butterflies Flew Across The World

Kids partake in a program with Skye High to create purple butterflies.
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation
Facebook/The Skye High Foundation

In the four years since it started, the Skye High Foundation has spread to several countries across the world. Hospitals in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the US now sport the purple butterfly stickers. The foundation now supports parents through pregnancies and supplies purple butterfly blankets for the surviving twin.

“The thing I am most proud of is that it has got people talking about it,” Millie said. “I want to support families, the butterfly idea, and anything else that can make a difference.”

The Cann Family Today

The Canns take a photo together.
Facebook/Millie Cann
Facebook/Millie Cann

Since the Canns began the Skye High Foundation, it has skyrocketed. The foundation now accepts regular donations, produces posters in multiple languages, and even gives “butterfly awards” to people who have aided families. You can still donate or contact the foundation today.

As for the family, they keep Skye’s memory in their hearts. Callie is still healthy, and the parents welcomed a boy, Luca, in 2017. Millie feels fulfilled when she helps other families under Skye’s name.