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Pregnancy and Birth – Obstetric terms explained

Obstetric negligence is a complex area of law and one which may involve a number of different aspects of pregnancy and birth. Here is an explanation of some of the more commonly used obstetric terms:

Brachial plexus: 

The nerve roots that connect the baby’s arm to the spinal cord. Can be damaged following shoulder dystocia during birth.

Breech presentation: 

Baby presents feet first instead of head down.

Caesarean section: 

Major surgery involving an incision being made through the mother’s abdomen and uterus to deliver a baby. One in four Australian babies is born by caesarean section (C-section). C-sections may be either elective or emergency:

Elective C-section:

Planned due to known problems with pregnancy. Usually carried out with epidural anaesthesia. Reasons include:

  • Breech or transverse presentation – baby is not head-down.
  • Placenta praevia – placenta is lying low, blocking the cervix.
  • Previous C-section – risk of rupture of uterine scar.
  • Multiple births – sometimes a decision is made to deliver by C-section.

Emergency C-section:

Decision to perform a C-section is made during labour. Refers to all unplanned C-sections as well as those carried out in an emergency. For C-sections performed when time is of the essence, the urgency usually requires these to be carried out under general anaesthetic. Reasons include:

  • Concern for baby’s wellbeing.
  • Labour is not progressing.
  • Maternal complications such as severe bleeding or severe pre-eclampsia.
  • Life-threatening emergency for mother or baby.


A local anaesthetic injected into the mother’s back (not the spinal cord) as a form of pain relief during labour or as the anaesthetic before an elective C-section. An epidural requires insertion of a urinary catheter due to loss of sensation from the waist down.


Deliberate cut of the perineum to allow baby’s head to be delivered to avoid a tear and thereby improve prospects of repair and healing. Often used if a forceps delivery is required and/or to enlarge the vaginal opening during birth.

External Cephalic Version ECV: 

A doctor trained in ECV manipulates the baby using his or her hands on the mother’s abdomen to turn a breech presentation around – about a 50% success rate.

Forceps delivery: 

Large curved tongs inserted into the vagina and cupped around the baby’s head to help the baby out of the vagina. Anaesthetic may be given to the mother. Episiotomy may be required.

Forceps may be used if:

  • Mother is too exhausted to push.
  • Baby is starting to become distressed and showing no sign of being born.
  • Baby is in an awkward position.


To bring about labour before it occurs spontaneously.   Used in about 25% of Australian births.

Induction is used if there are concerns that the mother or baby is at risk perhaps due to:

  • Maternal risks such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
  • Pregnancy beyond the due date and risk that the placenta can no longer sustain the baby’s life.
  • Waters have broken but contractions do not start within a certain timeframe.


Refers to any one of a number of medical procedures intended to affect labour and/or birth including induction, instrumental deliveries (forceps, ventouse/vacuum), epidurals, C- sections. Statistically about one in three Australian births involve some kind of medical intervention.


Meconium is the first stool passed by a newborn before it has ingested milk. Although babies usually pass meconium after birth, in some cases, they do so while still inside the uterus. The presence of meconium in the amniotic fluid indicates the baby was under stress due to a lack of blood and oxygen during labour and/or birth. In uncommon cases, the baby inhales the meconium into their lungs – Meconium Aspiration Syndrome (MAS) causing respiratory distress.


Low amniotic fluid, which puts the baby at significant risk of having a prolapsed or compressed umbilical cord, which can cause birth asphyxia.

Placental abruption: 

The placenta separates from the wall of the uterus. Abruption can cause severe bleeding and birth asphyxia.


High maternal blood pressure during pregnancy.

Shoulder Dystocia: 

Baby’s head is delivered but his/her shoulders become stuck in the pelvis. Baby can suffer a broken shoulder or damage to the brachial plexus as a result of the physical manoeuvres and manipulations required to free the baby. Can also cause birth asphyxia leading to brain damage if umbilical cord becomes trapped and compressed). Mother is at increased risk of post-partum haemorrhage.

Transverse presentation: 

Baby is lying sideways.

Uterine rupture: 

A tear through all the layers of uterus that can causing severe haemorrhaging in the mother, and the baby to spill out of the uterus into the mother’s abdomen.


Vaginal birth after Caesarean – giving birth to a subsequent child, after previously having undergone a C-section. Success rates are approximately 70%, with the other 30% requiring emergency C-section.

Ventouse or suction delivery: 

Use of a vacuum to deliver the baby by placing a large plastic suction cup on the baby’s head inside the vagina. The suction cup is attached to a vacuum. Anaesthetic may be given to the mother. Episiotomy may be required.

Our team can assist you by providing expert advice and legal support regarding your options. Contact us today on (02) 4929 3995 or info@catherinehenrylawyers.com.au or visit  www.catherinehenrylawyers.com.au

*The material provided in our information sheets is for general knowledge only and is not a substitute for independent legal advice. For further information about the issues affecting you, please contact one of our experienced and professional lawyers for expert advice.


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