What Is a Membrane Sweep?

Membrane Sweep

By the time the due date rolls around, many expectant parents are anxious to get pregnancy over with and meet their baby already! There are a number of methods to attempt to jump-start labor, from old wives’ tales (eat spicy food!) to full-on medical induction of labor. Your doctor may offer to perform a membrane sweep as a less invasive, but often effective way to nudge you toward the Big Day. What exactly does this procedure involve?

How Does a Membrane Sweep Work?

A membrane sweep, also known as stripping the membrane or stretch-and-sweep, is a drug-free procedure. The doctor or midwife inserts a finger into your vagina to reach your cervix. Then, they insert the finger into the opening in your cervix and make a swirling (or sweeping) movement to separate the cervix from the sac that surrounds your baby. This separation signals your body to release hormones that trigger contractions, increasing the chances that you’ll go into labor.

Why Do Doctors Use Membrane Sweeps?

Going into spontaneous labor, without medication and close to your due date, carries some important advantages for the birth. Your body’s natural contractions can be easier to tolerate than labor stimulated via medications like Pitocin. Carrying the baby for more than about 10-12 days past your due date increases the chances of stillbirth (although the chances are still low). Going into labor on time may also be more important if you have a condition like preeclampsia, are attempting a VBAC, or if the doctors have a concern about the baby’s health.

A membrane sweep isn’t the same as induction, so there’s no guarantee you’ll go into labor, but research shows the procedure is connected to increased rates of spontaneous labor and vaginal delivery, and lowered need for drugs like oxytocin.

Membrane sweeps are considered to be a low-risk procedure. The main downsides are pain during the procedure, and spotting and cramping afterwards. You can even have multiple sweeps a week apart, unlike other induction methods that basically “start the clock” for delivery.

How Soon Will I Go Into Labor After a Membrane Sweep?

If your membrane sweep manages to prompt labor, you can generally expect to see results in about 48 hours. You’ll likely have some contractions after the procedure, but the following hours or days will tell whether these are labor contractions or just a reaction to the membrane sweep.

Depending on your case, your doctor may wait until 40 weeks before offering a sweep or be willing to perform one as early as 38 weeks. It’s possible to have multiple sweeps, and sometimes the cumulative effect seems to help stimulate spontaneous labor.

Will a Membrane Sweep Hurt?

As someone who’s experienced this before, I’ll be honest with you: A membrane sweep isn’t fun. Your doctor may tell you to expect “discomfort” during the procedure. To me, it just plain hurt. Depending on the location of your cervix, a doctor may have to reach farther into your vagina to do the membrane sweep, which can range from unpleasant to painful for you. This may be a good first opportunity to practice some steady breathing and squeeze your partner’s hand! The good news is, the sensation goes away quickly once the membrane sweep is over.

It’s also good to remember that, as with any other medical procedure, a doctor needs your informed consent to perform a membrane sweep. You can decline one if offered, and you can even tell your provider to stop mid-procedure if it’s too painful or triggering for you.

Jessica Sillers
Jessica Sillers is a parenting and finance writer whose work has been featured in Pregnancy & Newborn, Headspace, and more. As a new mom herself, she’s passionate about helping other parents find the community and support they need. When she’s not writing, she loves spending time with her family, reading, and hiking.

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