The Ultimate Glossary for Pregnancy, Breastfeeding, and Healthcare Terminology

Need a little help navigating important conversations with your care providers about your pregnancy, birth experience, and breastfeeding journey? We've got you covered with some valuable terminology to know!

Need a Little Help? Here’s Some Common Pregnancy, Breastfeeding, and Healthcare Terminology!

We get it, mama – Pregnancy is a sensitive time. It can be even more exhausting to learn what can feel like an entire dictionary of brand-new terminology to navigate conversations with your healthcare providers, plan your ideal birth experience, and learn how to overcome breastfeeding challenges. Check out our pregnancy, breastfeeding, and healthcare terminology guide below for definitions to common phrases you may overhear and to better empower yourself to have an active voice in your pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding journey.

  • Abruption: This occurs when the placenta begins to separate from the uterus before the baby is born; often accompanied by abdominal pain, bleeding, and/or spotting.
  • Active Labor: The second of three distinct phases of labor; most often defined as when the cervix is dilated between three to seven centimeters. By this time, contractions are usually strong, defined, and frequent.
  • Advanced (Transitional) Labor: The third and final of the three stages of labor, during which time your cervix dilates from 7 to 10 centimeters. This is usually the shortest but most physically demanding stage of labor, where contractions become very intense and frequent. Finally, this is the stage where you will prepare for delivery and, in most cases, begin pushing.
  • Afterbirth: This blanket term includes the placenta and membranes after they have been delivered from your uterus.
  • Alveoli: Sacs that are located throughout each breast; your alveoli produce breast milk and send it through your milk ducts to your nipple, where it is then expressed for your baby.
  • Amniotic Fluid: Clear liquid that fills the amniotic sac and cushions, protects, and hydrates your baby during pregnancy.
  • Amniotic Sac: Sometimes referred to as your “water”, this sac surrounds your baby in your uterus and is filled with amniotic fluid. This sac will naturally break while you’re in labor, though sometimes your doctor or midwife will “break your water” during labor.
  • Anesthesiologist: A doctor who specializes in pain management and administers medication to relieve pain, such as an epidural.
  • Apgar Score: Your newborn’s very first test after birth! This test is given right after birth and examines your baby’s breathing, heart rate, reflexes, and more to ensure there are no immediate complications. While 10 is a perfect Apgar score, most babies range from 7 – 9.
  • Baby Blues: A common event that usually dissipates by 10 days postpartum, baby blues are thought to be the result of hormonal shifts immediately following birth and can cause mild sadness, anxiety, and feelings of being “blue”. Be sure to notify your healthcare provider if symptoms last longer than the first 10 days after birth or if you are unable to care for yourself and/or your baby.
  • Birthing Center: A healthcare facility, typically staffed by nurses, midwives, obstetricians, and/or doulas, exclusively for moms in labor and giving birth.
  • Birth Plan: A document created by you, or you and your partner, detailing requirements and requests for your birth experience.
  • Braxton-Hicks Contractions: “False alarm” contractions that can start early in your third trimester and begin preparing your body and cervix for real labor; in most cases, these “false” contractions are not painful, do not become more frequent, and are usually not reason for concern.
  • Breastfeeding: The act of feeding a baby with breast milk; historically by nursing them at the breast, but can also encompass feeding your baby with breast milk by bottle, syringe, cup, feeding tube (if there are certain medical challenges), or other method.
  • Breast Pump: A device that can be manual or electric and is used for removing and collecting milk from the breasts during lactation.
  • Breast Shield: A device that is worn over the breast and nipple when pumping, usually to maximize milk flow and comfort while using a breast pump. You may hear some refer to a breast shield as a “flange”.
  • Breech Position: This occurs when your baby is positioned feet-first or bottom-first, rather than head-first, shortly before or during labor. It may be possible for your doctor to externally turn the position of your baby, though if that is not possible then a C-section will likely be required.
  • Cesarean Section (C-Section): A surgical intervention during which your baby is delivered through an opening made in the abdomen and uterus, instead of delivering vaginally.
  • Cleft Lip: A congenital deformation that results in the upper lip often extending into one or both nostrils; this can typically be corrected with surgical intervention. Cleft lips can cause latching issues that may result in breastfeeding challenges, but there are methods and devices that allow you to feed your baby with breast milk.
  • Cleft Palate: A congenital deformation that results in the upper lip and roof of the mouth not growing together, though this can also often be corrected with surgical intervention. Cleft palates can also cause latching issues that may result in breastfeeding challenges, but there are methods and devices through which you can still feed your baby with breast milk.
  • Colostrum: Sometimes referred to as your “first milk”, this thick, yellow-gold early breast milk typically arrives in small volumes after birth, though some mothers leak colostrum during pregnancy (your body starts producing it as early as 16 weeks pregnant!). Colostrum also acts as a first food and important protectant for your newborn.
  • Contractions: Progressively intense and frequent tightening and relaxing of the uterus, as your body prepares for delivery; contractions help dilate your cervix and eventually push your baby out during birth.
  • Dilation: The progressive opening of the cervix, measured in centimeters.
  • Doula: A trained, non-healthcare professional who provides support to parents during labor, delivery, and sometimes the early postpartum period with a goal of encouraging a healthy, satisfying birth experience.
  • Early Labor: The first of three stages of labor, also sometimes referred to as the “latent phase”. It can last several hours or even days and, during this time, your cervix will begin to thin and dilate up to 3 centimeters.
  • Engorgement: A sometimes-uncomfortable feeling of fullness in your breasts, which usually signals that it’s time to express your milk and empty your breasts – whether by nursing, pumping, or even manual hand expression.
  • Exclusive Breastfeeding: The act of exclusively feeding your baby with breast milk and not supplementing with formula or other liquids.
  • Exclusive Pumping: The act of exclusively feeding your baby with breast milk by using a breast pump and feeding him or her with your expressed milk most often by bottle or syringe.
  • Expressing Milk: The act of extracting and removing breast milk from your breasts.
  • Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA): This act legally requires U.S. employers with over 50 employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for employed parents to care for a newborn baby or newly-adopted child.
  • Galactagogues: Foods, beverages, and supplements that are designed to increase breast milk production.
  • Gynecologist (OB/GYN): A doctor who specializes in women’s reproductive health; some doctors are both gynecologists and obstetricians, usually abbreviated to OB/GYN.
  • Lactation Consultant: A clinical professional who specializes in breast milk feeding; those with the IBCLC designation have been certified by the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners.
  • Latch: The act of a baby attaching his or her mouth to their mom’s nipple with the intention of extracting breast milk for nourishment and/or comfort.
  • Mastitis: A painful breast infection often caused by inflammation of the breast tissue due to clogged or blocked milk ducts; mastitis is often accompanied by flu-like symptoms such as a fever, chills, and/or a rash.
  • Midwife: A trained and certified healthcare professional who specializes in the care of mothers and babies during pregnancy, labor, delivery, birth, and the early postpartum period. Midwives often deliver babies at home or birthing centers, but be sure to check your state’s laws regarding midwives and home births.
  • Milk Ducts: Small tubes that carry breast milk from the alveoli, where it is produced, to the nipples, where it is expressed and flows out to feed your baby.
  • Nipple Shield: A device, usually made of thin silicone with tiny holes, that is placed over the areola and nipple to allow your baby to nurse at the breast and can reduce discomfort, soreness, and latching challenges.
  • Nursing Bra: A bra designed specifically to make frequent nursing or pumping sessions easier by allowing quicker access to the breasts; most nursing bras are also designed to be comfortable and accommodating so they can be worn through both pregnancy and postpartum.
  • Nursing Pads: Washable or disposable bra inserts that protect clothing against staining and wet spots due to breast milk leakage and keep nipples dry to avoid chafing while lactating.
  • Obstetrician (OB/GYN): A doctor who specializes in pregnancy, labor and delivery, and postpartum care; these doctors deliver babies. Some obstetricians are both obstetricians and gynecologists, usually abbreviated to OB/GYN.
  • Oxytocin: Sometimes referred to as “the love hormone”, oxytocin is released by the brain’s pituitary gland in response to infant sucking during breastfeeding. It causes milk to flow from the storage areas of the breast, through the milk ducts, and out through your nipples (which is referred to as “let-down”). It is an important component of bonding.
  • Prolactin: A hormone generated and secreted by the brain’s pituitary gland that is primarily responsible for breast milk production.
  • Tandem Nursing: The act of feeding more than one baby at the breast at once or with one baby directly following the other; this is most often seen with moms of multiples, such as twins or triplets, or when a mom breastfeeds two siblings of different ages (oftentimes a toddler and a newborn).
  • Tongue Tie: A condition present at birth that may restrict the movement of your baby’s tongue, often through tissue connecting the bottom of the tongue to the floor of the mouth. This may result in latching and/or breastfeeding challenges, though there are interventions available and ways to ensure your baby still receives your breast milk.

Remember, your pregnancy and breastfeeding journey is yours alone – Knowing some important related healthcare terminology can help you better navigate conversations with your care providers while feeling more comfortable communicating questions, concerns, and thoughts as they arise.