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Know before you go: medical terms you might hear during labor and delivery

Even if you attend childbirth classes and read extensively about childbirth, some terms that the doctors and nurses use during labor may be unfamiliar to you. Let’s walk through some common childbirth terms that you might hear once you get to Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children or Madison Hospital.

When you first come to the hospital in labor, you can expect to be hooked up to a fetal monitor. This is a machine that attaches to your belly and provides important information about your contractions (the hardness of your tummy) as well as the baby’s heart rate. When you feel a contraction, it will show up on the monitor.

At some point during your labor, you will likely hear the Labor & Delivery staff talk about early labor, active labor and/or transitional labor. These are the stages that you go through as you get closer to the delivery of your baby.

Your OB-GYN may instruct you to report to the hospital on a specific date to be induced. This means the doctor will order medications to start your labor. Pitocin is a medication that can jump-start your labor or help your contractions progress.
Cytotec and Cervadil work by softening the cervix so it will begin to open.

Before delivery, the nurses and doctor will check your presentation (is the baby head down?) and measure how dilated you are (from 0-10 centimeters, with 10 being the goal to start pushing). The team will also check the baby’s station (how far down the baby is in your pelvis) and your effacemen(how thin is the opening of the cervix).

The L&D staff will ask or look to see if your water has broken yet. The “water” is actually amniotic fluid, a clear liquid that surrounds and protects your baby in the womb. An amniotomy is when a doctor intervenes to break your water to help move the labor along.

There are a number of ways to help control the pain of labor. A spinal is when numbing medication is injected directly into the spinal fluid, providing immediate pain relief that lasts up to 2 hours. An epidural is when anesthesia is injected into the epidural space close to the spine. It typically takes 10-15 minutes to take effect but can help control your pain for as long as the labor lasts.

We offer nitrous oxide as another pain relief option for laboring moms. Also known as laughing gas, nitrous oxide can be a good choice for someone looking for a noninvasive pain reliever. You administer it yourself by inhaling the gas through a small face mask. It takes effect quickly and wears off once the mask is removed. Check out our blog post on pain management options here.

When it’s time to push, you may hear the Labor & Delivery team say that the baby is crowning. This simply means they can see the top of the baby’s head and the big moment is almost here!

The doctor may do a perineal massage just before birth to help smooth out the opening of the vagina for delivery.

When you are pushing, the doctor may use a vacuum extractor or forceps. These are medical devices that can be helpful in delivering the baby from the birth canal.

All that pushing can sometimes cause a laceration, or a tear in the vaginal wall.  An episiotomy is a surgical incision that the doctor makes to enlarge the opening of the vaginal wall so the baby can pass through more easily. The episiotomy is repaired after delivery.

Once baby arrives, the doctor will cut the umbilical cord and your body will deliver the placenta, an organ that develops in your uterus during pregnancy to provide oxygen and nutrients to your growing baby. Delivery of the placenta is sometimes called the afterbirth.

Meconium is baby’s first poop. This dark and thick stool typically passes through the system within 48 hours of birth. Baby’s poop will change color and consistency once you begin breastfeeding or using formula.

The APGAR score is a quick test to asses a newborn’s heart rate, muscle tone and other signs to see if extra medical care or emergency care is needed. APGAR stands for Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration.

At birth, your baby may be covered vernix, a white, pasty substance that helps protect baby’s skin while still inside mom. Learn more about vernix here.

The nurse may draw cord blood, which is a sample of blood from the umbilical cord used to determine your baby’s blood type.

Lochia is postpartum bleeding and will be closely monitored throughout your hospital stay. This discharge of blood and mucus from the uterus is completely normal and generally stops within 4-6 weeks after delivery.

If anyone on the Labor & Delivery team uses a word or term that you don’t understand, please speak up and ask them to explain! We want you to be informed and empowered and have the best birthing experience possible.


Cathy Mog, RN
Director of Mother/Baby and Breastfeeding Support Services at Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children


This information highlights the services of the HH Health System as well as current health topics important to families. The information is not intended to replace the advice of a physician. Every person is different, so please contact a physician to help you make the appropriate health care decision. HH Health System has made an effort to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of publication.

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