Labor and delivery: It’s a wild ride, a life-changing adventure, the ultimate event before you finally meet your baby. It’s also an experience chock-full of words and phrases you may not know or understand. But take heart! We’ve gathered the most common terms and definitions right here so you can be hip to the terminology in no time.
Amniotic sac. Also called “bag of waters” or simply “water,” this sac is filled with clear, odorless fluid that surrounds and protects the baby in the uterus from bacteria in the outside environment. It’s a pretty sure bet that once your water breaks, your baby will be arriving soon.
Cervix. The lowest part of the uterus that connects it to the vagina and serves as a passageway for the baby’s exit from the womb. This is the part you want to be dilated to 10 centimeters (and quickly, please!) before you begin to push.
Cord blood. The blood that remains in the umbilical cord and placenta following birth. This blood contains stem cells genetically unique to your baby and immediate family members; it can be harvested and stored for future medical use.
Fontanelle. Soft spot between the unfused sections of the baby’s skull that allows the baby’s head to compress slightly during passage through the birth canal. Fontanelles are what allow for that postbirth infant conehead. (Don’t worry: It’ll shift back to normal in no time.)
Perineum. The muscle and tissue between the vagina and the rectum. This is the area that can tear (or may be intentionally cut by a doctor or midwife) during delivery.
Contractions. The periodic tightening and relaxing of the uterine muscles that help push the baby down the birth canal.
Crowning. Describes the moment when the baby’s head is pushing though the fully dilated cervix and into the birth canal. Many women describe this moment as the “ring of fire” due to the burning sensation it produces.
Dilation. The amount the cervix has opened in preparation for childbirth, usually measured in centimeters. “Fully dilated” means you’re at 10 centimeters and are ready to push.
Effacement. The thinning of the cervix before birth, expressed in percentages. The pushing stage begins at 100 percent effacement.
Transition. This is the phase after active labor when the cervix completes its dilation to 10 centimeters. Contractions are the strongest and closest together during this phase, which (luckily!) is the shortest of all the labor phases.
Equipment and procedure
Episiotomy. An incision made to the perineum to widen the vaginal opening for delivery. This is an optional procedure; your doctor should ask your permission before proceeding.
External electronic fetal monitor. An electronic instrument that records the heartbeat of the fetus and contractions of the mother’s uterus using two belts: one to hold the listening device in place, and one to hold the contraction monitor.
Fetal-scalp monitor. An internal monitor used during labor that is usually in the form of an electrode placed on the baby’s scalp.
Forceps. An instrument resembling tongs that a doctor may use to assist delivery by applying a grip on the baby’s head and gently pulling outward.
Vacuum extractor. A suctioning tool with a metal or plastic cup attached to the head that is used to assist in baby’s exit.
Epidural. Labor anesthesia that is administered through a catheter threaded through a needle into the space near the spinal cord. Epidurals block all feeling to the lower part of the body without rendering you unconscious and can be administered continuously throughout labor.
Narcotics. Pain relievers given in early or active labor by IV or intramuscular injection. Examples include morphine, fentanyl, Nubain, Demerol and Stadol. These medications dull pain, but do not eliminate it, and the effects are felt in the entire body instead of a localized area.
Pitocin. A synthetic form of the body’s natural hormone oxytocin, which stimulates contractions of the uterus. Pitocin is the drug used to induce labor.
Spinal block. An anesthetic that numbs the lower body like an epidural. Unlike epidurals, however, spinal blocks are administered in a one-time injection directly into the spinal fluid and wear off after a few hours.
Afterbirth. The membranes and placenta that are expelled by the uterus after the baby’s delivery.
APGAR score. An assessment that measures the Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration (APGAR) of your newborn, each on a scale of zero to two. Taken both one and five minutes after birth, these five numbers are added together for a total score of zero to 10 as a quick health evaluation.
Colostrum. A thin, white, low-fat, high-protein fluid discharged from the breasts in the early stage of milk production that is full of antibodies.
Meconium. An infant’s earliest stools, often greenish-black and tar-like in appearance.
Vernix. A greasy white substance that coats and protects a baby’s skin in utero; it’s harmless and will be washed or wiped off after birth.