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What is a membrane sweep and do I want one to start labor naturally?

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In your final weeks before giving birth, it starts getting real. Your pelvis expands to bring on your pregnancy waddle and you experience the occasional contraction which keeps you awake wondering what you forgot to pack in your hospital bag. You’re counting down the days until you can hold your little one—and indulge once again in soft cheeses. But what happens when your due date nears with no signs of labor beginning? Are there steps you can take to move your labor along naturally? Time to learn about a membrane sweep. Read on to find out what a membrane sweep is and if you’re ready to let a membrane sweep help with the laboring process.

What is a membrane sweep?

Mama-to-be, Paige, was one week away from her due date, with no real signs of her labor beginning. That’s when her doctor suggested a membrane (or cervical) sweep. Paige says she’d never heard of what her doctor referred to as a “stretch and sweep,” so she had no idea what it was. Her doctor told her it was a method to help her body induce labor in a natural way. Fully ready to meet her baby on time, Paige agreed. But she still wasn’t exactly sure what she was agreeing to. 

Dr. Jane Van Dis, OBGYN and Bobbie medical advisor, helps us out by explaining, “A membrane sweep is when a CNM (certified nurse-midwife), or MD/DO (doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathic medicine) who practices obstetrics, places a gloved finger inside the cervix and sweeps usually in a 360-degree manner.” It’s performed once your cervix has begun to dilate because it won’t work on a cervix that isn’t open at all.

So, this is what a membrane sweep is, but does it work to bring on labor

What does a membrane sweep do?

Dr. Van Dis says by sweeping on the outside of the amniotic fluid sac, the hope is that the cervix is stimulated to begin the changes that lead to giving birth. According to the Cleveland Clinic, membrane sweeps help your body release chemicals called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins soften your cervix and prepare your body for labor. The softening of the cervix is part of the labor progression. As it softens it also thins out (effaces) and opens (dilates) to allow for the magic of childbirth.

Who needs a membrane sweep?

You should know that not everyone needs a sweep because many go into spontaneous labor without any intervention at all, says Dr. Van Dis. She goes on to clarify that no one “needs” a membrane sweep but it’s an option for those women who are 39 weeks and 0 days (or later) who’d like to try and help their labor along. This type of procedure is something to be discussed with your doctor because the Cleveland Clinic points out there is a chance the membranes will rupture during this procedure and why sweeping is only performed when you’re ready to deliver your baby.

How dilated do you have to be for a membrane sweep? 

A pregnant person must be dilated enough for a doctor to place their index finger through the cervix and Dr. Van Dis says this about 1 cm. She adds that this is definitely something that would be done after 39 weeks and 0 days gestation. So, now let’s ask the question we’ve all been thinking: What does it feel like? 

What does a membrane sweep feel like? Is it painful?

Everyone’s experience will vary and Dr. Van Dis says it can be challenging to answer this question because some find a membrane sweep uncomfortable and others do not. “There’s no correct answer here,” she says. Paige recalls taking a deep, relaxing breath before the process started and then immediately tensing because her pain levels unexpectedly jumped up to an eleven. Paige says, “I literally asked my doctor, ‘So, do you hate me? Are you trying to get back at me for something?’” Her doctor laughed, but for Paige, the intense discomfort she felt was no laughing matter saying she remembers that pain more clearly than her contractions during childbirth. 

How do you know if a membrane sweep is working? 

So, there’s actually no guarantee your labor will begin after having a membrane sweep. Dr. Van Dis says the procedure is more about increasing the likelihood of labor happening. “It’s more of a nudge than it is cause-and-effect,” she says. The Cleveland Clinic mentions one study that showed 90% of those who had a membrane sweep gave birth by 41 weeks compared to 75% who did not have the procedure. And Dr. Van Dis sites a recent Cochrane review of the practice that demonstrates it doesn’t produce “clinically important benefits, and that its use should be balanced against women’s discomfort and other adverse effects.”  

How do you know if a membrane sweep is working? 

Dr. Van Dis says there’s no one answer for this question because for some pregnant people the process can kick-start labor in a matter of hours and for others, it can take days. Of course, for those who go into labor days after having a sweep, Dr. Van Dis says you have to ask yourself, “Was it the membrane sweep or just natural labor coming along anyway!?” Signs that the process has moved you into labor would be stuff like cramping, pelvic pain, contractions, and light spotting or bleeding. The Cleveland Clinic also mentions bigger clues like you lose your mucus plug, your water breaks, or you have your bloody show. As always, contact your doctor at the first signs of changes. 

After Paige felt like her membranes were more vacuumed than swept, she went home and waited. And then she waited some more. Paige says her son had no intention of entering the world on his own, and once she’d passed her due date, she was induced in the hospital and eventually had an emergency C-section. Mama and son are happy and healthy, but Paige believes she falls into the “membrane sweep fail” category.

Why shouldn’t a person have a cervical sweep performed?

Since this isn’t a necessary procedure, preference is tops for opting out. “The number one reason is if a woman doesn’t want it done,” Dr. Van Dis says. She goes on to give several other reasons for not having this procedure performed like if you’ve been told that the placenta is covering the cervix (or “low lying”) or if you have any kind of infection in the vagina, cervix, or uterus. 

Dr. Van Dis wants you to keep in mind, membrane sweeping can cause rupture of membranes (which necessitates hospitalization) especially if one is positive for GBS. (1 in 4 women have this— it’s one of many bacteria that can be present in our bodies.) A pregnant person should be aware that if their water breaks after a membrane sweep, they need to be able to go to the hospital for antibiotics if indicated.  

Are membrane sweeps effective? Do they really work? 

So, how do we know if a membrane sweep really kick-starts your labor? Dr. Van Dis says, “I typically don’t offer this procedure, as the side effects (discomfort and vaginal bleeding) often are greater than the rewards (labor) given not all women who have membrane sweeping go into labor.” That leaves this decision ultimately up to you and your membranes— whether or not it’s your next step in supporting the beginning stages of your labor.

When asked if she thought the membrane sweep helped Paige says, “I didn’t see any benefit…but it’s an adventure you’ll never forget!” 

The content on this site is for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Discuss any health or feeding concerns with your infant's pediatrician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay it based on the content on this page.
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The content on this site is for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Discuss any health or feeding concerns with your infant’s pediatrician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay it based on the content on this page.

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