Glossary of Terms

Every discipline has its own vernacular – terms with which those who work in it are familiar but that often leave others scratching their heads. Let us list a few for you here in case you’re secretly wondering what a “VBAC” or a “fundus” is …

FYI, we took some definitions from a MedlinePlus Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary here. For others, we just wrote what definitions we’d tell you if we were talking over coffee.

Anemia: A condition in which one suffers from a deficiency in red blood cells, in hemoglobin, or in total blood volume. Mild anemia is common in pregnant women.

Amniotomy (AROM): The artificial breaking of the membranes surrounding a baby – “breaking water.” The midwife often uses a specially made amniohook, which looks like a crochet hook, to tag the bag.

APGAR: A wellness assessment tool used to measure how well a neonate is doing and if intervention (ie, resuscitation) is necessary. Babies get 2 points each for color, heartbeat, respiration, muscle tone and grimace, or response to stimuli. Named for pediatric anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar.

Assisted delivery: The term used to describe a vaginal delivery for which forceps or a vacuum extractor are used. Illustration here. Midwives typically do not use devices to assist delivery, especially not at an out-of-hospital birth.

Braxton-Hicks: Light, usually painless uterine contractions. Sometimes called “false labor” or “practice contractions.” They can be rhythmic or irregular, and they can present as a “hard belly” overall. Women can experience these throughout pregnancy and often note increased B-H in the last weeks before birth.

Cervix: The opening to the uterus. It hangs down into the vagina and, during the birthing process, thins out (effaces) and opens (dilates) to allow a baby through. The cervix is, mostly, what a midwife is feeling for when she conducts a vaginal exam.

Circumcision: The removal of foreskin from a male penis that has become somewhat routine in the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries. Some doctors, nurse-practitioners, midwives and religious officials perform “circs,” while others do not. They are done in several ways. We encourage each family to research risks and benefits before making their decision. Kate does not perform circumcisions but refers to others who do.

Cesarean section: A surgical procedure to birth a baby or babies via the mother’s abdomen. Here is information from the American Pregnancy Association. Cesarean birth, or “C section,” is major abdominal surgery and has risks and benefits different from vaginal birth. Midwives, often, actively work to try to prevent or avoid surgical births.

Colostrum: The “first milk” present at or very shortly after birth. It is yellowish and thin and full of protein, carbohydrates and antibodies but low in fat. Here’s what¬†Science Daily says about this very valuable substance.

Contraction: Technically, a contraction simply is the shortening of muscle fibers. In relation to birthing, contractions are the consistent and rhythmic shortening of the uterine muscle fibers. Uterine contractions encourage the cervix to thin and open to allow the baby passage. Contractions usually hurt.

Dilation: Opening, specifically in birthing of the cervix. Cervical dilation happens in the first stage of labor and is measured in centimeters, with 10 cm considered “complete” and ready for a woman to begin the second stage of labor (pushing and birth).

Doppler: Austrian physicist Christian Doppler studied how the frequency of sound wave echoes changed depending on moving or stationary objects, allowing sonography to help assess things like blood flow. Midwives typically use a hand-held device, often referred to as a “doppler” – though there are many trade names – to listen to a baby’s heartbeat and other sounds. At a home birth, the midwife or assistant will use a doppler to assess the baby about every 30 minutes in active labor and after most every push in second stage.

Effacement: Thinning, specifically in maternity care of the cervix. Effacement is measured in percentages, with 100 percent being fully thinned.

Exclusive breastfeeding: The practice of feeding a baby only breast milk, whether from a breast or bottle. “Exclusive” means no formula supplementation.

Episiotomy: A surgical incision(s) made on a woman’s perineum to assist the imminent birth of the baby.

Fetoscope: A tool made especially for auscultating (listening) to a fetal heartbeat by placing a bell on the mother’s belly. See a picture here. Because a fetoscope requires more precise placement to hear heart sounds clearly than a doppler does, the midwife might use it to help pinpoint a baby’s position in utero.

Fundus: “The bottom of or part opposite the aperture of the internal surface of a hollow organ” – for our purposes, the large upper end of the uterus. Your midwife will measure from your pubic bone to your fundus at second- and third-trimester prenatal visits. She might also perform fundal massage after the birth to help your uterus contract and slow bleeding.

Gestational diabetes: Diabetes that occurs during pregnancy. A woman with gestational diabetes has trouble processing sugar. Treatment varies, and controlled gestational diabetes is not – usually – a risk-out factor for home birth.

Glucose: A simple sugar our bodies use for fuel. Women with high glucose numbers in pregnancy can be diagnosed with gestational diabetes. The midwife will offer you a glucose challenge test (GCT) to see how well your body is processing sugar.

Glucose challenge test (GCT): A test usually offered about 24-28 weeks’ gestation to see how well your body tolerates sugar. You drink “Glucola” and have nothing else for an hour. The midwife then draws your blood and has its sugar level tested.

Group Beta Strep (GBS):

HIPAA: The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 which established laws and ethics regarding patient confidentiality. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services information

Introitus: The opening to the vagina, or the birth canal. The midwife might chart, “Baby’s head visible at the introitus.”

Laceration: A cut or tear. In birthing, lacerations are seen usually in a woman’s perineal area and/or in her vagina. Midwives will categorize them in degrees, first through fourth, with fourth being the most significant in regard to how much tissue was affected, and will suture them after the birth if necessary. Many women experience minor lacerations called “skin splits” that require little attention.

Membranes: The two-layer “bag” that

Metabolic Screen:

Non-stress test (NST):

Oxytocin: Sometimes called “the love hormone” because it also is elevated during intimacy, oxytocin is a hormone produced by the anterior pituitary that causes uterine contractions and contractions of muscle around mammary glands (as in for let down).



Pap smear:


Prenatal Profile:

Placenta: Also known as the “afterbirth,” the placenta is a vascular organ that unites the fetus to the maternal uterus and mediates its metabolic exchanges. About the size of a dinner plate, the placenta includes the baby’s amniotic sac and umbilical cord. It is usually birthed without trouble 5 minutes to 30 minutes after the baby is born.

Pitocin: A synthetic version of the human hormone oxytocin. Used to cause uterine contractions. At home births, it is used – *when* it is used – to clear up heavy post-partum bleeding but is not used to augment labor.



Prodromal labor:


Rh factor:

Spontaneous Rupture of Membranes (SROM):

Stages of labor:

Station: The height of the baby’s presenting part (usually a head) in relation to the mother’s pelvis – how high or low a baby is in mom. Measured from “balottable” and “floating” to -3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, +3, with +3 or +4 being birth of the head. How high or low the baby is can be a factor in laboring strategies.

Transition: The last part of the first stage of labor – just before a mother is ready to push. Usually, a mom’s cervix is from 7 cm to 10 cm dilated during transition (though that can vary greatly) and is experiencing close-together and painful contractions. Signs and symptoms of transition can include nausea and/or vomiting, feeling hot then cold, shaking, crying, self-doubt and/or feelings of “I can’t do this” and irritability.

Umbilical cord: The cord that connects the baby to the placenta. Once cut, its site becomes the baby’s belly button. An umbilical cord is the “lifeline” from mother to baby in utero and is made up of two arteries, one vein and a soft substance called “Wharton’s Jelly.”

Vagina: Part of a woman’s reproductive organs, specifically, the tube through which the baby passes – the “birth canal” – during birth.

VBAC: An acronym standing for “vaginal birth after cesarean.” Sometimes it’s used as a verb – “She plans to VBAC” – or as a descriptive noun – “She’s a primary VBAC.”

Vernix Caseosa: A fatty, greasy substance made of dead epithelial cells and sebaceous secretions present on a baby’s skin in utero (and at birth, then) that protects the baby while in amniotic fluid. Often called “cheesy,” vernix is white and thick and sometimes thought of, affectionately, as “nature’s cold cream.”

¬†Vitamin K: A naturally-occurring vitamin that assists the body in making blood-clotting factors. Babies are reported to lack Vitamin K until about the seventh or eighth day after birth. Vitamin K is offered to parents for their newborns and is usually administered by an injection in the baby’s leg muscle.


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