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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Glossary of Pregnancy Terms

May 20, 2013

Pregnancy Guide
Glossary of Pregnancy Terms
Glossary of Pregnancy Terms
Glossary of Pregnancy Terms
From amniocentesis to vernix, learn what those pregnancy terms mean.
InteliHealth Medical Content

Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School



A test in which a thin needle is inserted into the uterus through the abdominal wall to obtain a sample of the fluid surrounding the fetus. It is usually conducted between the 15th and 18th weeks of pregnancy to detect some chromosomal and genetic disorders. It may be used later in pregnancy to determine if the baby's lungs are mature.

Amniotic Sac

The bag of amniotic fluid that surrounds and cushions the fetus.


A decrease in the number of red blood cells, usually due to a shortage of iron during pregnancy.


Medicines used to relieve pain.


Dark circles surrounding the nipples of the breasts.

Biophysical Profile (BPP)

A test to assess the health of the fetus by looking at fetal breathing, body movements, muscle tone, heart rate and the amount of amniotic fluid.

Cesarean Section

Surgical delivery of a baby through the abdominal wall.


The narrow, muscular neck of the uterus.

Chorionic Villus Sampling

Prenatal test performed early in pregnancy, usually between 10 and 12 weeks, to detect genetic disorders, particularly chromosome problems such as Down syndrome.


Recurring abdominal or lower back pain signifying the beginning and continuation of labor.

Contraction Stress Testing

A test to measure the fetal heart rate in response to a contraction.

Dilatation or Dilation

The widening of the cervical opening as delivery nears.

Down Syndrome

A condition caused by an extra chromosome in the fetus. This extra chromosome causes characteristic facial features and a lower IQ.


The retention of fluid, common in pregnancy.


The thinning of the cervix that occurs before labor begins.

Electronic Fetal Monitoring

The use of electronic equipment to monitor the fetal heart rate and uterine contractions.


Name given to the developing baby until its 12th week of development, when it is referred to as the fetus.


Term used to describe the movement of the baby into the pelvic cavity in the final weeks of pregnancy.


Anesthetic sometimes used during delivery to numb the lower half of the body. A thin catheter is placed between the vertebrae so that medicine can be delivered to the nerves in the spinal cord.


A surgical incision that widens the vaginal opening during delivery to allow more room for the baby's passage.

Fallopian Tubes

Branch-like tubes that extend from both sides of the uterus and serve as the egg's passageway to the uterus. Fertilization takes place in one of the fallopian tubes.


The top part of the uterus.

HIV Testing

A test to detect the presence of antibodies to the virus that causes AIDS.


Chemicals produced in the body that regulate such body functions as blood sugar levels, the menstrual cycle and growth.

Incompetent Cervix

A condition in which the cervix opens prematurely without contractions. Another, perhaps better term, is premature cervical dilatation.


To begin labor by means of medication (oxytocin or prostaglandin) or other interventions, such as rupturing the membranes, that cause the uterus to contract.


The period during which the muscles of the uterus contract, the cervix thins and opens and the baby descends through the uterus, cervix and birth canal.


Soft hair that covers the fetus.


Also known as "engagement," this is the movement of the baby into the pelvic cavity.

Linea Nigra

A dark vertical line that appears between the navel and the pubic area in some women during pregnancy. It normally disappears following birth.

Maternal Serum Screening

One or more tests that are routinely offered to pregnant women between 15 and 18 weeks of pregnancy. These tests measure the level of certain substances present in a woman's blood during pregnancy. Abnormal test results are an indication that further testing is needed to rule out a chromosomal abnormality or a neural tube defect. In most cases, further tests indicate that the fetus is not affected with a disorder.


The monthly shedding of the uterine lining.

Nonstress Testing (NST)

A test to assess the health of the fetus by monitoring the fetal heart rate in response to fetal movement.


A doctor who specializes in childbirth and women's medicine.


One of two small glands located at the end of the fallopian tubes in females. The ovaries produce the eggs necessary for reproduction and the hormones necessary for fertilization and pregnancy to occur.


The monthly release of an egg by an ovary.


The organ attached to the uterine wall that nourishes the fetus and transports its wastes.

Placental Abruption

A condition in which the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus.

Placenta Previa

A condition that occurs when the placenta lies low in the uterus, blocking the birth canal partially or completely.

Premature Labor

Labor before 36 completed weeks (or 37 weeks).

RH Factor

A protein found on some individual's red blood cells. All humans have either Rh positive blood (if they have the protein) or Rh negative (if they lack the protein) blood. Problems may arise when an Rh negative mother has an Rh Positive fetus and forms a reaction (antibodies) to the baby's Rh protein.


German measles. Contracting this virus during the early weeks of pregnancy can pose serious risks to the fetus. Most women have been immunized against this, so they are at no risk.


The male reproductive element, contained in semen.


A local anesthetic sometimes used in childbirth to numb the lower half of the body. It is injected into the spinal column.


Unexpected bleeding that sometimes occurs during pregnancy. Any spotting should be reported to your obstetrical care provider.


A disease passed through cat feces or the eating of raw meat that can cause severe birth defects in children.


One of pregnancy's three, three-month periods.


Also called sonography, this test is widely used by physicians to estimate delivery dates and garner other information about the developing fetus.

Umbilical Cord

The cord that attaches the fetus to the placenta.


Tube-like female reproductive organ located below the uterus and cervix.


Vaginal birth after cesarean section.


Creamy white coating that covers a fetus and newborn baby.


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