SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- During pregnancy and childbirth, you may see and hear lots of different medical terms.
The following list provides definitions for some of the more common terms.
Medical terms and definitions
Amniotic fluid – the liquid that surrounds a baby in the uterus (also called ‘waters’).
Amniotic sac – the sac around the baby inside the uterus.
Anaesthetist – a doctor who specialises in giving anaesthetic.
Antenatal – a term that means ‘before birth’ (alternative terms are ‘prenatal’ and ‘antepartum’).
Antepartum haemorrhage – bleeding from the vagina during pregnancy.
Apgar score – a test given one minute after a baby is born, then again 5 minutes later, that assesses a baby’s appearance (skin colour), pulse, grimace (reflex), activity (muscle tone) and respiration. A perfect Apgar score is 10; typical Apgar scores are 7, 8 or 9. A score lower than 7 means that the baby might need help breathing.
Birth canal – the passageway (made up of the cervix and vagina) that the baby travels through during birth.
Braxton Hicks contractions – a tightening of the uterus (womb) that may feel like a labour contraction. Braxton Hicks contractions are not painful and do not get stronger and closer together like true contractions (also called ‘false labour’).
Breaking of water – when a healthcare practitioner bursts the sac holding the amniotic fluid using an instrument with a pointy tip. Often used to speed up a labour that has slowed.
Breech – when the baby is positioned inside the uterus with its bottom or feet down, instead of its head.
Cervix – the narrow, lower end of the uterus that softens and opens during labour to allow the baby to come out.
Conception – the process of becoming pregnant,when a sperm and egg join to form a single cell (alternative terms include ‘fertilisation’, ‘impregnation’ and ‘insemination’).
Contraction – the often strong and painful tightening of the uterus during labour that causes the woman’s cervix to dilate and that helps push the baby through the birth canal.
Crowning – time during labour when the baby’s head has reached the external vaginal opening and can be seen from the outside.
Dilation – the opening of the cervix, measured as the diameter of the cervix in centimeters.
Embryo – the name given to a fertilised egg from the time of conception until the eighth week.
Epidural – a type of anaesthetic commonly used in labour where drugs are used to numb the lower half of the body.
Fallopian tubes – the narrow ducts or tubes in a woman’s abdomen that carry the egg from the ovaries to the uterus. This is where fertilisation most often occurs.
False labour – see ‘Braxton Hicks contractions’.
Fertility – being able to conceive and carry a baby though to the end of the pregnancy.
First-degree tear – a tear involving only the perineal skin (adjacent to the vaginal opening) that occurs at the time of delivery that doesn’t always require stitches.
First trimester – the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.
Folic acid – a B vitamin found naturally in green leafy vegetables that helps prevent anaemia and has been shown to reduce the incidence of some birth defects, including spina bifida (see definition below).
Fontanelles – the 6 soft spots on a baby’s head that allow its skull to compress during birth so it can pass through the birth canal. The fontanels completely fuse by the time the child is 2 years old.
Forceps – tong-shaped instruments placed around the baby’s head to help it travel through the birth canal during childbirth.
Full term – when a pregnancy is a normal duration (37 to 42 weeks gestation).
Gestation – the length of time (in days or weeks) that a baby is in the uterus.
Gestational diabetes – a that develops during pregnancy when the woman’s blood sugar levels become too high because of inadequate levels of . The condition is treatable and usually disappears after pregnancy.
Haemorrhage – excessive bleeding.
In utero – a term that means ‘inside the uterus’.
Incontinence – an inability to control your bladder or bowel movements.
Induced – when a healthcare professional tries to artificially ‘start’ a woman’s labour.
Labia – the flaps of skin around a woman’s vagina.
Low birthweight – when a baby weighs less than 2,500 grams at birth.
Meconium – a tar-like substance passed by a baby as their first poo. Passing meconium before birth may be a sign of fetal distress.
Model of care – the way maternity care is organised.
Morning sickness – nausea, vomiting and aversions to certain foods and smells that affect most pregnant women to some degree. can occur at any time of day, usually begins at 4 to 8 weeks gestation and generally subsides by week 16 of the pregnancy.
Multiple pregnancy – when a woman is carrying more than one baby.
Natural birth – birth without any interventions for example a vaginal delivery rather than a caesarean section.
Neonatal period – the time from a baby’s birth to 4 weeks of age.
Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) – a unit in the hospital for babies who need a high level of special medical care.
Neonate – a newborn baby, up to 4 weeks of age.
Newborn – a baby between birth and 4 weeks old.
Nursery – a room in a hospital where babies can stay during the day or overnight.
Ovaries – the female reproductive organs that release eggs into the fallopian tubes, where they may be fertilised if sperm are present.
Ovulation – the monthly release of a mature egg from an ovary. A woman is most fertile around the time of ovulation.
Ovum – a human egg.
Perineal haematoma – a collection of blood, resembling a bruise, in the area between the vagina and the anus.
Perineum – the area between the vagina and anus.
Placenta – the organ that connects to the wall of the uterus, that nourishes the baby through the umbilical cord.
Postnatal – a term meaning ‘after birth’ (alternative terms are ‘post-birth’ and ‘postpartum’).
Postpartum haemorrhage – when a woman loses more than 500 ml of blood after birth.
Premature – when a baby is born before 37 weeks gestation.
Prenatal – a term meaning ‘before birth’ (alternative terms are ‘antenatal’ and ‘antepartum’).
Second-degree tear – a tear of the perineum involving both skin and muscles, but not the anus. Second-degree tears often require stitches.
Second-stage labour – the time from the complete dilation of the cervix (10 cm) to the birth.
Second trimester – the time from 14 weeks to 26 weeks of pregnancy.
Special care nursery (SCN) – a unit in a hospital for babies who need special medical care.
Spina bifida – a that occurs during the first month of pregnancy when a baby’s backbone does not fully close, leaving part of the spinal cord exposed. Spina bifida cannot be cured, but a range of treatments and management options is available.
Spontaneous labour – when labour starts by itself (without medical help).
Stillbirth – the death of a baby after 20 weeks’ gestation but before birth.
Stretch marks – discoloured stripey patterns that can appear on the abdomen, breasts, buttocks or legs during pregnancy because of skin stretching. They usually fade slowly after delivery.
TENS machine – a ‘trans-electrical nerve stimulation’ machine used for pain management during labour.
Termination of pregnancy – see ‘abortion’ above.
Theatre – an operating room in a hospital or other health facility.
Third- or fourth-degree tear – a severe tear of the perineum involving the skin, muscles and anus. Stitches are used to repair these tears.
Third-stage labour – the time from the birth of the baby to the birth of the placenta.
Third trimester – the time from 26 weeks of pregnancy onwards.
Trimester – a time span of 3 months during pregnancy, each marked by different phases of fetal development.
Umbilical cord – the cord that connects the baby to the placenta, allowing nutrients (vitamins and minerals) and oxygen to be carried from the woman to her baby.
Uterus – a woman’s womb.
Vacuum cap or ventouse – a suction cap that is sometimes used during birth to help to pull the baby out of the birth canal.
VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean) – when a woman has a vaginal birth after having had one or more previous caesarean sections.
Viable pregnancy – a pregnancy that is likely to continue to full term.
Walking epidural – an epidural that may still enable the woman to walk.
Water birth – where a baby is born fully submerged in water.
Waters – the amniotic fluid that surrounds an unborn baby inside the uterus (see ‘amniotic fluid’).