Our comprehensive glossary defines the terms that you’re likely to come across during pregnancy, labour and birth.


  • Afterpains

    Cramping pain during the first days after childbirth caused by the uterus contracting.

  • Alongside birth centre

    A place to give birth that’s on the same hospital site as a maternity unit, but where care is provided by midwives and not doctors. Also known as an alongside midwife-led unit.

  • Amenity room

    A private room on a postnatal ward, which you usually pay to stay in, and can move to when your baby is born. Amenity rooms won’t always be available, so ask about availability at your hospital.

  • Anaesthetist

    A doctor specialising in giving anaesthetics for operations or setting up epidurals.

  • Antenatal

    The period during pregnancy, before you give birth.

  • Assisted delivery

    When the baby is born with the assistance of surgical instruments such as forceps or a ventouse. Also referred to as an assisted birth or an instrumental birth.

  • Augmentation

    An intervention intended to increase the intensity of labour to make it progess faster.  This can be done with drugs or by having your waters broken.


  • BMI

    Short for Body Mass Index, a measure of body fat based on your weight and height.

  • Birth canal

    The passage babies pass through during birth. Formed by the cervix, vagina and vulva.

  • Birth centre

    Run by midwives, this is a place with an emphasis on birth without medical intervention. Birth centres often provide a more relaxed atmosphere than a labour ward.

  • Birth partner

    Your partner, a relative or a friend who supports you emotionally and practically during labour and birth.

  • Birth pool

    A wide, deep bath or pool filled with clean warm water, which can be used to help relieve pain during labour or to give birth in. They can be permanently plumbed in or portable.

  • Breech baby

    An unborn baby lying with its bottom or feet downwards. A woman carrying a breech baby is likely to need extra support during labour.


  • Caesarean

    An operation to allow your baby to be born through a cut in your abdomen.

  • Care Quality Commission (CQC)

    The regulator for all health and social care services in England.

  • Caseloading

    Where a midwife (or a pair of midwives) has full responsibility for your care throughout pregnancy, labour and after your baby is born. This type of care gives you the opportunity to get to know your midwife.

  • Catchment area

    The local area for which the hospital provides its services. If you don’t live within this area, you might be referred to as ‘out of area’.

  • Catheter

    A urinary catheter is a thin, flexible tube gently inserted into your bladder along the path which urine travels down. Urine drains out of your bladder and is collected in a bag, so you don’t need to go to the loo while it’s in place. It’s usually inserted when you have an epidural.

  • Cervix

    Narrow passage forming the lower end of the uterus. It effaces (softens and thins) and opens up to ten centimetres to allow the baby to be born.

  • Community midwives

    Midwives who provide care outside the hospital, such as in a local clinic, GP surgery or your home.

  • Complications

    Problems that occur during childbirth which could lead to you needing additional medical support.

  • Continuity of care

    Having the same midwife (or doctor) look after you throughout your pregnancy, and sometimes during labour and after the baby is born.

  • Contractions

    The regular tightening of muscles during labour that push your baby down and open your cervix so your baby can be born.


  • Delivery suite

    The part of a hospital where both doctors and midwives are available to help women giving birth. Also known as a labour ward, obstetric unit or consultant-led maternity unit.

  • Diamorphine

    A pain-relieving drug that can be given by injection during labour.

  • Dilation

    Cervical dilation is when the cervix opens up. During childbirth, the cervix goes from being closed to ten centimetres dilated before the baby is born.

  • Doula

    A woman experienced in giving emotional and practical support to women in labour, who can be hired as a birth partner. Doulas can also provide support during pregnancy and after your baby is born.


  • Entonox

    Also called gas and air, a mixture of oxygen and nitrous oxide that you can inhale to provide pain relief.

  • Epidural

    A local anaesthetic injected into your lower spine to provide pain relief in labour.

  • Episiotomy

    A surgical cut made just before the baby is born, widening the opening of the vagina to allow the baby to be born more quickly.

  • External cephalic version

    A manual process where an obstetrician or midwife attempts to reposition a breech baby into the preferred ‘head-down’ position. Also referred to as ECV.


  • Forceps

    A surgical instrument put around a baby’s head to help you give birth.

  • Freestanding birth centre

    A place to give birth that is run by midwives and isn’t on the same site as a hospital maternity unit. Also called a standalone birth centre or freestanding midwife-led unit.


  • GMC

    General Medical Council. This keeps a register of qualified medical doctors.

  • Gas and air

    Also called Entonox, a mixture of oxygen and nitrous oxide that you can inhale to provide pain relief.

  • Gestation

    The time, usually measured in weeks, between conceiving the baby and the birth. A baby is ready to be born between 37 and 42 weeks’ gestation, with the due date at about 40 weeks.

  • Group B Strep

    An organism which is usually harmless, but which can cause a serious infection in newborn babies. Women who test positive for Group B Strep (Streptococcus) are usually recommended to give birth in a labour ward.


  • Health visitor

    Registered nurse or midwife who has additional training in community public health nursing, working with families to look after the health of children from birth until they start school.

  • Home birth

    When you have your baby at home. There will usually be two midwives there to support you.

  • Hypnobirthing

    A method that helps prepare women for birth by reducing fear of the event and encouraging relaxation.


  • Independent midwife

    A fully qualified, self-employed midwife who can provide paid-for private midwifery care.

  • Induction

    Having labour started artificially rather than letting it start by itself. This can be done with drugs or by having your waters broken.

  • Instrumental birth

    When the baby is born with the assistance of surgical instruments such as forceps or a ventouse. Also known as an assisted delivery or assisted birth.

  • Integrated midwifery

    A system where midwives work both in the hospital and in the community.


  • LNU

    A local neonatal unit provides special care for newborn babies in the local area, except for those who are critically ill and need intensive care.

  • Labour ward

    The part of a hospital where both doctors and midwives are available to help women giving birth. Also known as a delivery suite, obstetric unit or consultant-led maternity unit.

  • Latching on

    When a baby puts its mouth around the mother’s nipple and begins to feed.

  • Lochia

    Vaginal discharge after giving birth containing blood, mucus, and uterine tissue; typically continuing for four to six weeks after childbirth.


  • Mastitis

    A condition which causes breast tissue to become painful and inflamed, usually affecting women within the first three months after giving birth.

  • Maternity notes

    Notes your midwife or doctor will take throughout your pregnancy.

  • Maternity unit

    The part of a hospital  or midwife-led facility dedicated to caring for women before, during and immediately after childbirth.

  • Meconium

    A dark green substance forming the first faeces of a newborn infant.

  • Medical intervention

    An action taken by a doctor or midwife that involves medical equipment or drugs to help you give birth to your baby.

  • Meptid

    The brand name for meptazinol, this is a pain-relieving drug similar to pethidine. It can be given by injection during labour to help you cope with the pain of contractions.

  • Midwife

    The health professional who is the expert in straightforward pregnancy and birth.

  • Midwife-led care

    Where the main health professionals you see throughout your pregnancy and labour are all midwives. Women at a low risk of complications don’t usually need to have maternity care from a doctor unless a problem arises.

  • Midwife-led unit

    Another name for a birth centre, it’s a place to give birth with an emphasis on birth without medical intervention, where care is led by midwives.

  • Morphine sulphate

    An opioid painkiller sometimes called Oramorph. It provides pain relief and can help you sleep during the early stages of labour.


  • NICU

    A neonatal intensive care unit provides special care for newborn babies in the local area and also for critically ill babies from the surrounding area who need the highest level of nursing and medical care.

  • NMC

    Nursing and Midwifery Council. This keeps a register of qualified nurses and midwives.

  • Natural birth

    The exact definition can vary, but in general it means a birth that doesn’t need the kind of medical interventions available only in a hospital maternity unit, such as induction or epidural.

  • Neonatologists

    Doctors who specialise in looking after newborn babies who need medical care.

  • Normal birth

    A birth where labour starts on its own, the woman doesn’t have any anaesthetic such as an epidural, and she gives birth without a caesarean, forceps, ventouse or cut (episiotomy).


  • Obstetric unit

    A place to give birth where both doctors and midwives are available. Also called a labour ward or delivery suite.

  • Obstetrician

    A doctor who specialises in pregnancy and births. If you have no problems during pregnancy and birth, you’ll be looked after by midwives and won’t need to see a doctor.

  • Opioids

    Also called opiates, a group of similar pain-relieving drugs including pethidine, diamorphine and meptid.

  • Oramorph

    A medicine containing the painkiller morphine sulphate. It provides pain relief and can help you sleep during the early stages of labour.


  • PALS

    The Patient Advice and Liaison Service offers confidential support and advice to help you resolve concerns and problems when you’re using the NHS. PALS can also give you information about the NHS complaints procedure.

  • Pelvic floor

    Pelvic floor muscles are the layer of muscles that the bladder, bowel and uterus lie on.

  • Perineum

    The area between the vagina and the anus. It sometimes tears as the baby is born, or a cut might be made in it (episiotomy) to help the baby be born more quickly.

  • Pethidine

    An opioid pain-relieving drug that can be given by injection during labour.

  • Placenta

    Also called the afterbirth, this is the organ provides the baby with food and oxygen throughout the pregnancy through the umbilical cord.

  • Placenta accreta

    A serious pregnancy condition that occurs when the placenta is attached and embedded too deeply into the uterine wall, increasing the risk of heavy bleeding after the baby is born.

  • Placenta praevia

    A rare pregnancy complication where the placenta attaches in the lower part of the uterus, very close to or covering the cervix. It can cause heavy bleeding during pregnancy or birth.

  • Planned caesarean

    A caesarean scheduled to take place before labour starts, also called an elective caesarean or planned c-section. A caesarean can be planned for medical reasons, or sometimes at a woman’s request.

  • Postnatal

    The time after your baby is born. Synonym to postpartum.

  • Postnatal depression

    A type of depression affecting one in ten women within a year of giving birth. With the right support – which can include self-help, therapy or antidepressants – most women make a full recovery.

  • Postnatal ward

    The ward within the maternity unit that you will be moved to after giving birth. You’ll stay there until you’re ready to go home.

  • Postpartum

    The period of time following childbirth. Synonym to postnatal.

  • Postpartum haemorrhage

    A rare complication where you bleed heavily from the vagina after your baby’s birth.

  • Private midwife

    A fully qualified midwife who’s employed by an organisation other than the NHS or is self-employed. You usually have to pay for their services.


  • Registrable birth

    A baby born live at any time, or a stillbirth after a gestation of 24 weeks.

  • Remifentanil

    A fast-acting, pain-relieving opioid, usually given through a drip controlled by the woman that can be used as an alternative to an epidural. It acts only for a few minutes, so can be given in short bursts when needed for contractions.

  • RhD negative

    If you have rhesus D negative blood, you’ll be offered two sets of injections while you’re pregnant to protect your baby and any future children you may have from rhesus disease.


  • SCU

    A special care unit provides neonatal care for babies in the local area who need extra support but who don’t require high dependency care.

  • Skin-to-skin contact

    When the baby is placed naked on the mother’s chest after birth. Skin-to-skin contact has been proven to be beneficial for newborns.


  • Team midwifery

    Where you receive care from a team of midwives whom you get to know throughout your pregnancy. This same team may also be responsible for your postnatal care and, in some cases, for looking after you in labour.

  • Tens machine

    Tens stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. A Tens machine gives pain relief during labour using electrode pads on your back and a mild electric current.

  • Transfer

    Moving to a labour ward during labour or shortly after birth for extra medical help. You may be taken in an ambulance if you planned birth at home or in a freestanding birth centre, or it will be a short transfer within a hospital if you planned birth in an alongside birth centre.


  • Umbilical cord

    The long flexible tube that connects an unborn baby to its mother.

  • Unplanned caesarean

    Also called an emergency caesarean, this is a caesarean that needs to take place quickly because of an unexpected problem with the mother or baby.

  • Uterus

    Also called the womb; the part of a woman’s body where the baby grows before it’s born.


  • VBAC

    Vaginal birth after caesarean. Around two thirds of women who try to have a VBAC are successful, but this rate varies depending on circumstances and the care received.


  • Ventouse

    Also known as a vacuum cup, this can be used to help you give birth to your baby. The vacuum cup is held on the baby’s head by suction, so the baby can be pulled out during a contraction.


  • Water birth

    Giving birth to your baby in a birth pool.

  • Womb

    Also called the uterus, the part of a woman’s body where the baby grows before it’s born.