You got it, toots. Being pregnant can feel like entering an alternate universe where everyone is speaking in baby-tongue, and you just smile and nod because it’s too overwhelming to stop all the baby people every twenty seconds to ask for a definition and explanation. When I went to prenatal appointments, I begged my mind to become a steel trap that could capture all the words my care provider said that I didn’t understand, so I could later ask Google. Why didn’t I just ask my doctor questions, or write down a list in the moment, you ask? Because I was petrified of being seen as illiterate in pregnancy and birth talk. Looking back, I feel so bad for that version of myself. Of course I didn’t know all that stuff — I had never been pregnant before! I wasn’t yet part of that world.
So that’s my long way of saying, when your care provider starts rattling off gibberish, don’t be afraid to pipe up and say, “I actually have no idea what you’re talking about. Please rewind and explain.” To help you out, here are some of the more uncommon terms your care provider might use. There’s also a full list of pregnancy and childbirth terms and definitions in the glossary.
Pregnancy Term Cheat Sheet
amniocentesis: A test typically done between sixteen and twenty weeks’ gestation to test for developmental abnormalities in the fetus. To perform the test, the care provider inserts a hollow needle into the uterus to retrieve a sample of amniotic fluid. This is most commonly done for women thirty-five and older.
APGAR score: A measurement of how baby is handling life outside the womb. The care provider usually performs this evaluation about one to five minutes after birth by rating the baby’s color, heartbeat, reflex, muscle tone, and breathing (which is what APGAR stands for: appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration). The score ranges from 1 to 10.
birth doula: A person trained in childbirth who provides emotional, educational, and physiological support before and during childbirth. They do not provide any medical assistance, but instead support mom with tasks like the creation of birth preferences, navigating choices during childbirth, utilizing pain- and fear-relieving techniques, and overall helping mom have a calm and empowered birth experience. Birth doulas often support the woman’s partner as well.
cerclage: A procedure sometimes done for a woman with an insufficient cervix (the cervix opening too early). In this procedure, stitches are used to close the cervix. They will be removed near the end of pregnancy.
colostrum: The first substance that comes out of a woman’s breasts after birth. Nicknamed “liquid gold,” colostrum often has a yellowish color and is filled with high levels of protein, salts, fats, and vitamins. Many consider colostrum a superfood for newborns, as it boosts their immune system, coats the stomach and intestines to help prevent illness, acts as a laxative, can prevent jaundice, and lowers blood sugar. You’ll only produce about one to four teaspoons per day, and it will be replaced when your milk comes in about two to five days after birth.
cord blood banking: The process of collecting blood from the umbilical cord and placenta after the cord is cut, freezing it, and storing it in a cord blood bank. Some parents elect cord blood banking because the blood contains hematopoietic stem cells that can be used to treat diseases like leukemia and lymphomas, in addition to some disorders of the blood and immune systems, such as sickle cell disease and Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome. The stem cells can benefit the child or their first- or second-degree relatives.
cord prolapse: A rare, serious complication that involves the umbilical cord dropping through the cervix and into the vagina, before the baby. If you can see the cord (which is not always the case), call 911 and lift your butt into the air, to get the weight of the baby off the cord.
delayed cord clamping: The practice of allowing the umbilical cord to stop pulsating before it is clamped and cut. This allows blood from the placenta to be transported into the baby, sometimes increasing the baby’s blood volume by up to a third, minimizing iron deficiencies and supporting brain development.
dinoprostone (Cervidil): A medication, usually administered as a vaginal insert, used to soften the cervix. One of the mildest forms of induction medication, dinoprostone is often utilized before misoprostol (Cytotec) and synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin). A woman must remain in bed for two hours after insertion; it is removed after twelve hours, or when labor is established.
effacement: The thinning of the cervix. The cervix starts out being about three to four centimeters long, and as labor progresses it gets shorter, thinner, and wider (dilation).
engaged head: The settling of the baby’s head into the pelvis. This generally happens during the end of the third trimester when you’re nearing labor. When this happens, you’ll typically be able to breathe easier, as there’s less pressure on your diaphragm. You might also feel increased pressure in your pelvis.
external cephalic version (ECV): A process used to turn a breech baby into the head-down position for birth. In an ECV, the mother is typically given a medication (via IV) that relaxes her uterus, and then a care provider strategically presses on various areas of the abdomen, trying to turn the baby. An ultrasound is sometimes used to guide the process, and the baby’s heart rate is closely monitored. And will it hurt? Probably. If you need an ECV, use it as practice for childbirth by putting your breathing techniques and other relaxation tools to work.
fontanelles: The two spaces between the baby’s five skull bones where the sutures (soft membrane gaps) intersect. Also known as “soft spots.” The fontanelles are covered by strong membranes that protect the brain. They are located near the front of the skull and on the crown. While many new parents are terrified they’ll poke a hole in baby’s head if they accidentally touch one of these spots too hard, you won’t — they’re a lot tougher than they look (both the spots and the baby as a whole). They should usually close by baby’s twentieth month.
group B strep (GBS): Naturally occurring bacteria that can cause serious illness in newborns. When I tested positive for this, I logically thought it meant pregnancy had given me an STD. But no. GBS is a bacterial infection found in the vagina or rectum of about 25 percent of women. Between weeks thirty-five and thirty-seven of gestation, a swap test will be used to determine if you have GBS. While it typically does not cause symptoms in the mother, it can be dangerous if passed to the baby during delivery. Because of this, care providers often recommend that women who test positive be given IV antibiotics at the onset of labor and then every four hours until baby is born.
lanugo: Fine, soft hair covering the newborn in the womb and helping a protective layer of vernix stick to the skin. The hair usually sheds around month seven or eight of gestation, but it sometimes sticks around for many weeks after birth. Lanugo is most commonly seen on babies born prematurely.
lochia: Vaginal discharge present after birth that contains blood, mucus, and uterine tissue. It typically lasts for four to six weeks, but usually it isn’t too heavy after the first week.
misoprostol (Cytotec): A medication (pill) used to induce labor, administered orally or vaginally. The use of misoprostol is controversial, as it can cause hyperstimulation of the uterus and other potential complications, according to a study published in the Journal of Perinatal Education.
nonstress test: A test done in the hospital or birth center to confirm baby’s health in the womb. It’s noninvasive and only consists of baby’s heart rate being monitored. Care providers specifically want to see how baby’s movements impact their heart rate, as their heart should beat a bit faster when they move. It usually can’t be done before week twenty-six of gestation.
nuchal cord: An umbilical cord that is wrapped around baby’s neck. While it sounds scary, nuchal cord is rarely dangerous. According to a study published in Maternal Health Neonatal Perinatal, 10 to 29 percent of fetuses experience nuchal cord. My little overachiever also had this.
nuchal hand: When baby’s hand is by their face when they’re born. Also called compound hand. My son did me the favor of being in this position as I pushed him out. Nuchal hand is likely what made that stage of labor take longer, and made it so hard I sounded like a constipated boar whilst pushing.
placenta abruption: A rare occurrence where the placenta prematurely detaches — either partially or completely— from the wall of the uterus, sometimes causing heavy bleeding and a lack of oxygen for the baby. If this happens early in pregnancy, the baby will be closely monitored through ultrasound. If it occurs later in pregnancy, the baby will probably be delivered through C-section.
placenta accreta: When the placenta grows too deeply into the uterine wall. This often prevents the placenta from detaching completely from the uterus after baby’s birth, which could cause hemorrhaging. In this situation, the baby is usually delivered through cesarean. And in severe cases, a hysterectomy (the surgical removal of the uterus) may be required.
placenta previa: When the placenta is covering part or all of the cervix. The primary symptom is vaginal bleeding (often with bright red blood), unaccompanied by pain. Sometimes, placenta previa resolves itself. When it doesn’t resolve by the time a mother is full term, the baby is often delivered via cesarean.
postpartum doula: What I like to call an “Earth angel” — an individual trained to swoop in for a few hours each day, for the first few weeks of baby’s life (or more!), to provide support with breastfeeding, infant care, and mama’s emotional and physical recovery. In addition, postpartum doulas often help with housekeeping, meal prep, errands, childcare for siblings, and pretty much anything the parents and baby need.
prodromal labor: The frustrating phenomenon of early labor that feels like much more than Braxton Hicks contractions but isn’t actually doing much to dilate the cervix. However, this type of labor isn’t totally pointless, as it can help baby get into the ideal position and prep the muscles, pelvis, and your brain for active labor. This is different than early labor because the contractions often start and stop (for example, you might have them only at night), instead of progressively getting longer, stronger, and closer together, as often happens when a woman is experiencing early labor that transitions into active labor. I recommend using prodromal labor as an opportunity to get into the groove of birth by practicing pain-relieving techniques, even if the contractions aren’t intense.
Rh factor testing: Ready for a science lesson? Here goes. Rh is a protein found on the surface of red blood cells. If you have the protein, you’re Rh positive. If you don’t, you’re Rh negative. Most people are Rh positive. During your first prenatal visit, your care provider will likely order a blood type and Rh factor screening test to see what blood type you’re working with. If you’re Rh negative, the baby’s father will be tested. If the man is Rh positive, it’s likely your babe is also Rh positive, which means the two of you are Rh-incompatible. In this case, your care provider will likely recommend the RhoGam shot.
Rh immunoglobulin (RhoGAM): If you and baby are Rh-incompatible, you’ll get a shot of Rh immunoglobulin (brand name RhoGAM) during week twenty-eight of pregnancy, and within seventy-two hours after delivery if it’s confirmed that baby is Rh positive. The shot prevents your body from making antibodies during your first pregnancy that could attack the fetus during subsequent pregnancies. Without the shot, your immune system would detect the foreign proteins on baby’s blood cells (foreign only if you’re Rh negative and they’re Rh positive) and create antibodies so it could attack the foreigner should it show up again — which it would if you get pregnant again with an Rh positive baby.
transverse: When baby is lying sideways, instead of head down. Most babies transition into head down, but if they don’t by around thirty-six weeks’ gestation, your care provider might recommend an ECV.
vernix caseosa: A waxy, cottage cheese–like coating on baby’s skin that protects them from the “pruning” effects of amniotic fluid. In addition, when baby swallows vernix caseosa in utero, it can help develop their gut bacteria, serves as a lubricant during birth, protects baby from bacterial infections after birth, and helps heal vaginal tears, as the vaginal opening is exposed to it as baby emerges. Because of these post-birth benefits, the World Health Organization recommends waiting six hours before giving baby a bath. If you want to maximize these benefits, request on your birth preferences that baby not be wiped off after birth, and that their first bath be delayed.
vertex: When a baby in utero is positioned head down.
What to do
Review these phrases, but don’t be afraid to ask questions when someone starts talking in terms (or recommends tests) you don’t understand. People love to feel smart and impart wisdom to others — so you’re giving them a gift by asking the questions.