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Medical Terms


The afterbirth, which is also known as the placenta, is the developing baby’s life support system in pregnancy. It supplies nutrients and takes away waste products. The baby is attached to the placenta via its umbilical cord. After the baby is born the afterbirth is delivered during the third stage of labour.


Afterpains are cramp-like pains, similar to period pains or labour contractions, that you may experience in the first few days after your baby is born. Afterpains are caused by contractions of the uterus as it shrinks back to almost its pre-pregnancy size. Afterpains tend to be stronger after second or subsequent births and they often feel stronger during breastfeeding because the hormone oxytocin that is produced during breastfeeding also causes contractions


This is a diagnostic test that may be offered to women considered at high risk of having a baby with a condition such as Down’s syndrome (see above for further details).

Amniotic Fluid

Amniotic fluid is the name for the liquid that surrounds the baby in the amniotic sac during pregnancy.

Amniotic Sac

The amniotic sac is the name for ‘bag’ that lines the uterus during pregnancy and contains the baby and the amniotic fluid.


Anemia is a condition that causes tiredness, breathlessness and paleness, and which is commonly caused by a shortage of iron in the blood.


The word antenatal literally means ‘before birth’ and it is used to refer to when a woman is pregnant, before her baby is born.

Apgar Score

Apgar score is the term used to describe the first assessment of your baby’s well-being after birth. Your baby’s condition will be assessed at one minute after birth and then again at five minutes.


This is the darker circle of skin around the nipple on a woman’s breast. It may darken further during pregnancy.

Braxton Hicks Contractions

You may begin to feel Braxton Hicks contractions around the middle of your pregnancy, although they tend to become more noticeable in late pregnancy. They are tightenings of the muscles of the womb in preparation for labour and are usually painless.

Cephalic presentation

This term is used to describe the position of a baby who is lying head down.


The cervix is the opening or neck of the womb.

Chorionic Villus Sampling

Also known as ‘CVS’. This is a diagnostic test carried out after 11 weeks of pregnancy to diagnose a chromosome abnormality or genetic condition. A fine needle is passed through the mother’s tummy under ultrasound guidance, and a small sample of genetic material from the placenta is taken. CVS carries a small risk of miscarriage (around 1%).


Colostrum is the name for the first breastmilk that you produce. It is a thick yellowish milk produced in small quantities by your breasts before the mature milk comes in. Rich in protein, fats and antibodies, it protects your baby against many diseases and also helps stabilise your baby’s blood sugars, protect your baby’s gut and clear the meconium - the dark, tar-like substance in your baby’s bowels during pregnancy.


During labour the muscles of the womb tighten to open up the neck of the womb (cervix) and push the baby out through the vagina. At first the contractions can be far apart. They become stronger and come closer together as labour progresses and then help to push the baby out.


This is a highly effective analgesic that can be used to relieve pain during labour. It is given by injection.


This term is used by health professionals and means ‘to open’. During normal labour a woman’s cervix dilates to allow her baby to be born. Your cervix will be described as fully dilated when it has opened to a width of 10cms.

Down's Syndrome

Sometimes called Trisomy 21, this syndrome is a genetic disorder where the affected person carries an extra chromosome 21 and therefore has 47 rather than 46 chromsomes in each cell. People with Down’s Syndrome have varying degrees of learning difficulty, physical problems and a characteristic appearance.


This word is used to describe the first eight weeks of the baby’s development after conception. After that it is known as a fetus.


When the baby’s head or bottom moves down into the pelvis, usually during the last few weeks of pregnancy.


When the breasts feel hot, hard and uncomfortable due to increased blood supply and a build up of milk. Generally only a problem during the first few weeks of breastfeeding, after which the breasts adjust to make the amount of milk required by the baby.


Entonox is also known as ‘gas and air’ and is a mixture of 50 per cent oxygen and 50 per cent nitrous oxide. It can be inhaled during labour for pain relief.


An anaesthetic injection into the back which numbs the nerves supplying the uterus and cervix so that the mother can no longer feel the pain of contractions. It can also remove sensation from the legs and feet.


A cut made through the tissue stretching between the back wall of the vagina and the back passage to enlarge the opening and help the baby be born more easily. A local anaesthetic is given beforehand.

Fetal Distress

This is the term used when a baby is in difficulty inside the mothers womb. Some babies with fetal distress need to be born quickly. This is done by Caesarean Section, forceps or ventouse.

First Stage of Labour

The period from the onset of painful, regular contractions until the cervix becomes fully dilated (10cms).

Folic Acid

Folic acid is one of the B vitamins and is found mostly in leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and kale, orange juice and enriched grains. It is recommended that women take 400mcg of folic when trying to conceive and for for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy; this reduces the risk of the baby having an abnormality like spina-bifida.


Forceps may be used to help the baby be born when (s)he is lying in an awkward position and the mother cannot push him out. They may also be used if the mother’s pushing is ineffective because she has is very tired. Forceps guide the baby’s head through the birth canal.


The fundus is the part of an organ that is furthest away from its opening, so in pregnancy the fundus refers to the top of the uterus, as this is the furthest part from the cervix.

Gestational Diabetes

A small proportion of women develop gestational diabetes when they are pregnant. This is a form of diabetes (high blood sugar level) which usually goes away after your baby is born.

Guthrie Test

More commonly know as the “heel prick” test. In the UK, all newborn babies are screened using the Guthrie test. This tests primarily for two disorders: Phenylketonuria and congenital hypothryroidism, and, depending on your health authority, it may also test for other disorders such as cystic fibrosis.


The iron-containing part of the blood that makes it red. Lack of haemoglobin causes anaemia, although it’s normal for haemoglobin levels to drop slightly during pregnancy. Haemoglobin levels are tested at the first pregnancy visit, and at 28 and 34 weeks.


Medical term for excessive bleeding. Bleeding may take place before the baby is born (when it is called an antepartum haemorrhage), or after the baby is born - postpartum haemorrhage.


Induction is the term used for a midwife or doctor starting labour for a pregnant woman. There are different ways that labour can be started (induced).


Involution is the name given to the process in the weeks after birth by which the womb returns to its pre-pregnancy size and position. This process takes about six weeks.


Many babies have jaundice after they are born. They often look a bit yellow and may be very sleepy for a few days. It happens because the baby is not getting rid of waste in the blood quickly enough, which results in high levels of bilirubin in the blood. Baby jaundice usually goes away quickly after a few days, but sometimes a baby will need help such as phototherapy treatment.



Labour is the term used to describe the process a pregnant woman’s body goes through so that her baby can be born. Labour is divided into three ‘stages’.


The feeling a mother may get in her breasts near the start of a breastfeed. The let-down reflex is felt when hormones cause the milk to flow freely from the milk sacs into the milk ducts and down to the nipple.

Linea Nigra

When you are pregnant, your body produces more melanin (the pigment that makes your skin the colour it is) than usual. It is common for women to develop a dark vertical line from the belly-button to the pubic area during pregnancy. This is called the linea nigra and it is caused by the body having more melanin in its system than normal. It tends to fade a few months after the birth.


This is the name given to the vaginal blood loss that happens after the birth of your baby and the delivery of the placenta. The blood loss lasts from anything between two and six weeks and usually varies in colour over that time.


Mastitis is an inflammation of the breast. It can make the affected breast very tender, hot and sore. The woman may also experience flu-like symptoms and a high temperature. Frequent breastfeeding, with expressing if necessary, helps to clear the mastitis. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat it.


This is the substance in the baby’s bowels during pregnancy. It is dark, sticky and tar-like.


Feeling of sickness, common in the first three months of pregnancy.

Nuchal Translucency Scan

A nuchal translucency scan is a screening test carried out at between 11 and 14 weeks of pregnancy to estimate how likely it is that your baby has Down’s Syndrome.


This is the medical term for swelling; commonly caused by fluid or water retention. Many women get oedema of the legs towards the end of pregnancy.


The natural hormone that makes the womb contract during labour (and, in an artificial form) is sometimes used to induce labour). It also causes milk to be squeezed out of the milk reservoirs in the breasts during breastfeeding.

Pelvic Floor

The muscles which hold the vagina, womb and bladder in place.


This is the area of tissue between the back of the vagina and the back passage (the anus).


A drug sometimes given to women in labour for pain relief. Given by injection into the thigh, it is stronger than “gas and air”.


For your baby to grow and develop in the womb during pregnancy, it is dependent upon the placenta. This remarkable organ is your baby’s life support system while she is in the womb. It is attached to the lining of your uterus and your baby is attached to the placenta via the umbilical cord.

Placenta Praevia

Condition where the placenta is situated very close to, or lies across the cervix. May mean that the baby has to be born by Caesarean section.


This word is used to describe the time after your baby is born. It literally means ‘after birth’.


Hormone which stimulates the breasts to make milk. It begins to be secreted during the final months of pregnancy and then for as long as breastfeeding is established. More prolactin is secreted at night, when milk production increases. High prolactin levels inhibit the menstrual cycle and so stop periods from returning straight after birth in most women.


The medical name given to the six weeks following the birth of a baby.


Second Stage of Labour

The middle part of labour, when the cervix is fully dilated and the baby descends down the birth canal, until the time the baby has been born. Show

During pregnancy, a plug of sticky jelly forms in the neck of the womb. This plug often comes away in late pregnancy and can be an early sign of labour.

Spina Bifida

Spina bifida is a birth defect/neural tube defect which can occur very early on in pregnancy. In spina bifidia, the protective tube of bones which normally closes around the nerves (or spinal cord) fails to do so, leaving the nerves to bulge out on the unborn baby’s back and become damaged.


After the birth of a baby, stitches may be needed to repair a tear in the perineum, or the cut from an episiotomy, or to close a Caesarean section wound.


A sweep is one of a number of artificial methods that can be used to start the process of labour. The midwife or doctor inserts a finger through the neck of womb to separate the amniotic sac from the cervix, stimulating the release of hormones which may initiate labour.


A synthetic form of oxytocin, the hormone which stimulates contractions. It can be used in a drip to induce or speed up labour.


TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation and is a method of relieving pain in labour by stimulating nerve cells that partially block transmission of the pain of contractions.

Third Stage

The third stage of labour is the phase from the time when your baby fully emerges until the placenta is delivered.


Transition is the term used to describe the phase that spans the end of the first stage and the beginning of the second stage of labour. It’s the time during which your cervix may be completing opening up and your uterus is getting ready to push your baby out. Contractions are often strongest and closest together just before and during this phase. It is an intense time when women can feel emotionally and physically overwhelmed.

Transverse Lie

A transverse lie describes the position of the baby in the womb. It means that the baby is lying horizontally across the uterus rather than in a head-down or bottom-down position. Babies that remain in a transverse lie will need to be delivered by Caesarean Section.


The uterus, or womb, is the place where your baby grows and develops during pregnancy.


The vagina is the name for the passage, or ‘birth canal’, from the womb to the outside world.


During the second stage of labour, when the cervix has opened fully, the baby is pushed out by the force of the contractions and by the concerted pushing of the mother. If the second stage is long and a woman is having problems pushing the baby out or the baby is getting tired then she may be offered assistance, with either a ventouse or forceps. A ventouse is a silicone or metal cap attached to a suction pump. The cap is fitted on the baby’s head while it is inside the birth canal. The ventouse is then pulled as the woman pushes to help the baby be born.


Vernix is a creamy white substance that covers the baby’s skin during the last few months of pregnancy. It helps to protect the baby’s skin from the amniotic fluid and also makes the baby slippery so that (s)he can travel down the birth canal more easily.

Waters Breaking

At some stage during labour, or before labour starts, the amniotic fluid surrounding your baby will be released. It may either trickle out or flow out in a rush.


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