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Unpack the Most Common Medical Terms Used in Pregnancy, Labor, Birth and for Baby

Jan 12, 2021 | 4 Minute Read

Having a new baby can be both exciting and intimidating; you’re about to be responsible for a brand new person!

Becoming a parent comes with a learning curve and that starts before your baby is born. There are so many decisions to make from the very moment you learn you’re pregnant, so as nurse who helps women birth their babies, let’s unpack the most common medical terms you may hear or read during pregnancy, labor, birth and recovery after birth.

During your pregnancy, you will have lots of appointments with your provider to check on both your and your baby’s wellbeing. No doubt, during that time, you will hear lots of new terms that you are not so familiar with. Some of the first new terms you will hear will involve those who care for you during your pregnancy.

Healthcare Provider Terms

Your options range among physicians to midwives and advance practice nurses. Pregnancy specialist doctors are called obstetricians, but you may also receive pregnancy care from a family practice doctor, certified-nurse midwife or an advanced practice nurse.

There are all types of midwives, including certified-nurse midwives who have advanced education, training and certification and often hospital privileges. There are various levels and certifications for midwives depending on their type of education, but if you have what’s considered a high-risk pregnancy based on your personal health concerns, or the status of your developing baby, you may not be eligible to receive pregnancy care from a midwife.

And then there are specialists who are people who work supporting women during birthing called doulas. They’re trained to offer emotional support throughout pregnancy, postpartum or even losses. They are not trained to offer medical advice, however they are able to help you create a birth plan that communicates things that will be important to you throughout your pregnancy, labor and postpartum experience to your healthcare team.

Birth plans are an excellent way to ensure that your pregnancy care is provided in a way that supports you and your partner’s needs and desires for your labor and birth. It’s a document that aids and supports communication between you and your birthing team.

Learn the Most Common Pregnancy Terms

Here are some other common terms you will encounter during your pregnancy, postpartum and newborn journey:

Amniotic Fluid: this fluid surrounds and protects your fetus while it grows in the amniotic sac. It helps baby move, grow strong bones, and develop healthy lungs, and overall grow healthy and well.

Breastfeeding/Chestfeeding: feeding baby with human milk from the breast/chest; human milk is the optimal food for newborns and babies.

Braxton Hicks: These are random and mild contractions—tightening and loosening—of the uterus that often begin in the third trimester. This is the uterus practicing for when real labor begins!

Breech: refers to the positioning of your baby in the womb. Breech positioning means that the baby’s bottom is down towards the opening of the cervix.

Cesarean surgery: a surgical way for a baby to be born other than vaginal birth. A surgical incision is made on your abdomen and the baby is born by lifting them out of your womb through the incision.

Cervix: the lowest part of the uterus that is thick and long. Your healthcare providers will check your cervix to let you know how you’re progressing in labor and whether birth is imminent. Your pregnancy care provider may also describe “effacement” as your cervix thins as you progress toward birth from 0% being the thickest and 100% being the thinnest. They will also describe the size of the cervical opening from 1 to 10 centimeters, which 10 centimeters being fully dilated and ready for birth.

Cluster-Feeding: a period of time when baby wants to feed much more frequently. Baby may cluster feed, for example, right before growth spurts. This is normal for baby in the first weeks of life and most commonly occurs within breastfed babies.

Colostrum: this is the first breastmilk your body makes and its produced when you give birth. This “foremilk” is thick, nutrient-dense and great for your newborn baby.

Dilation: the opening of the cervix either spontaneously, or with the help of labor tools (medications or by hand).

Effacement: the thinning of the cervix; usually expressed as a percentage (0% being the thickest, 100% being the thinnest).

Epidural: a common labor pain management medication that can be used to help manage the pain of labor by numbing the spinal nerves; it’s inserted in into your back, and the use of an epidural may restrict your mobility in labor and birth.

Episiotomy: a surgical incision made at the opening of the vagina to rapidly enlarge the space into which you can birth your baby. Let your healthcare provider know your preferences about whether you would want or decline an episiotomy.

Formula Feeding: feeding baby commercially prepared infant food that contains nutrients similar to breastmilk that can be prepared and fed to baby instead of human milk.

Full Term: pregnancy that is between 37 weeks and 42 weeks gestation. Term is further defined as:
  • Early-Term (37-38 weeks 6 days)
  • Full-Term (39-40 weeks and 6 days)
  • Late-Term (41-41 weeks 6 days)
  • Post-Term (42 weeks and later)

Induction: the process of stimulating labor before it begins on its own. This can be done several different ways using medication or non-medicinal techniques.

Labor: regular, painful uterine contractions that cause the cervix to thin and dilate to allow baby to be born.

Lochia: bleeding and vaginal discharge common during the postpartum period after you give birth. It is common see lochia for 4-6 weeks after delivery. It initially starts as blood but eventually changes to a clear yellow discharge.

Meconium: baby’s first poop. It can occur while baby is still inside the womb or after they are born. Usually dark green in color and very thick and sticky.

Placenta: an organ that develops during pregnancy that functions to provide nutrients and oxygen to your developing baby as well as filter out waste products. It’s connected to the baby via the umbilical cord and is expelled shortly after the birth of the baby by detaching from the uterine wall.

Pre-term: any baby born before 37 weeks gestation.

Umbilical Cord: a cord that connects the baby to the placenta via the belly button; nutrients pass to and waste passes from baby to mom via the umbilical cord.

These are just a few of the new terms you will come across in your journey to become a parent. When you read or hear a new term you don’t recognize or understand, don’t hesitate to ask your pregnancy care provider or your nurse—they will happily explain the word and its relevance to your health, pregnancy and baby in the moment.

Kimber Stovesand, RN, BSN

Kimber Stovesand, RN, BSN, is a travel nurse who supports birthing people throughout the U.S. have safe and supported births.

The information contained on this article should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your health care professional.