What's A Membrane Sweep And How It Works: Risks Of Membrane Sweep

What Is A Membrane Sweep And What Should You Know Before You Have One?

March 30, 2020 Updated April 15, 2021

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By the time you hit 39 weeks in your pregnancy — a milestone known to expectant mamas as full-term — you’re beyond ready to meet your little one. You’ll inevitably be a little nervous about childbirth because, hello, it’s a big deal! But, mostly, you’re looking forward to laying your eyes on your baby for the first time. Real talk: You also feel like you’re  going to pop, so you may be super-receptive to the idea of membrane sweeping when your doctor mentions it.

Membrane sweep is a method used by health care practitioners to naturally and gently trigger labor in a normal, full-term pregnancy. I had it during both of my pregnancies, and both times I was in labor a few blissfully short days later. If you’re not sure what the process entails or whether it’s safe, we have the rundown on what you need to know about this technique and whether it’s right for you.

What happens during a membrane sweep?

Not unlike a standard examination, you’ll hop onto the exam table and assume the position (you know the one). Your healthcare provider will put a gloved finger into your vagina and then into the cervix. They’ll make a gently circular, or “sweeping,” movement with the finger to separate the amniotic sac from the sides of the uterus near the cervix.

Do not — we repeat, do not — try this at home. Membrane sweeping should always be done by a trained healthcare professional. You are not a master of DIY membrane sweeping, so don’t even entertain the idea. Trust us on this one. But more to the point, trust medical professionals who underscore that this would be a terrible, terrible idea.

Is membrane sweeping safe?

As long as your pregnancy is considered normal, you likely have nothing to worry about. In a 2014 study published by the Journal of Clinical Gynecology and Obstetrics, researchers concluded, “Sweeping of the membranes at term is safe and reduces the incidence of post-date gestation.”

So, is there any reason to skip a membrane sweep?

While doctors will tell you a membrane sweep is virtually risk-free, “virtually” doesn’t cut it for some mamas. The National Library of Medicine published a study that suggests a slight risk of a premature rupture of the amniotic sac during membrane sweeps. In other words, there is always a chance that a membrane sweep can lead to your water breaking. That’s still not necessarily a “negative.” However, once your sac ruptures, your doctor will usually expect labor to begin within a certain timeframe. If that timeframe flies by and there’s still no other signs of labor, your baby starts to become more susceptible to infections. Given this, your doctor may want to move forward with more medical forms of induction. If you don’t want to risk any additional medical interference birth plan, you might want to forgo membrane sweeps.

Is it painful?

Let me level with you — it’s not fun. Your doctor or midwife will remind you to relax and breathe through it, because that’s about all you can do. Real talk, though, it’s nowhere near as painful as childbirth itself, and it’s over in just a few (uncomfortable) minutes. You can always ask your healthcare provider to stop if it hurts too much for you.

How effective is a membrane sweep?

As is often the case in the medical community, you may hear varying opinions on just how effective membrane sweeping really is. Some doctors contend that factors such as how far along a woman is make a big difference in the overall outcome. Just think of it this way — membrane sweeping is largely viewed as less effective than induction by medication, but more effective than other natural methods of induction (i.e. nipple stimulation, etc.).

In many cases, a membrane sweep can lead to childbirth a few days earlier.

What should I expect after a membrane sweep?

Not surprisingly, you may feel a bit tender and sore afterward. You may even have some light spotting and cramping or contractions. With any luck, though, you’ll go into labor! Although, in full disclosure, that doesn’t happen instantaneously. So, what are the signs a membrane sweep has worked? How do you know it has kickstarted labor? Those contractions, obviously — have a timer handy in case they become more regular. Some midwives and obstetricians eschew membrane sweeping in normal pregnancies as they can make the remaining time of the pregnancy so uncomfortable. You can have contractions for days or even weeks before you actually go into labor, making for sleepless nights and uncomfortable days. You should discuss the pros and cons extensively with your doctor before you proceed.

If you have your “bloody show” or lose your mucus plug, it could mean labor is imminent. Keep an eye on any labor symptoms and call your doctor if you suspect labor has actually begun. Alternately, if you find yourself in severe pain or with heavy bleeding after the appointment, that also merits a call to your obstetrician.

When is this typically offered?

In uncomplicated pregnancies, your doctor or midwife may bring up membrane sweeping in the final few weeks — so, typically, between 38 weeks (full-term) and 40 weeks. Since the risk of childbirth complications increases once you become overdue, your healthcare provider may want to try to spur spontaneous vaginal labor.

Your doctor or midwife won’t offer to sweep your membrane until you’ve reached that 38-week milestone. Your cervix must already be partially opened for the sweep to be performed. Following a sweep, you may experience some light spotting for up to three days after the appointment, if you experience any bleeding heavier than that you should contact your obstetrician right away.

How often can you have a membrane sweep?

This depends largely on your medical provider and you. Some obstetricians may do a membrane sweep once when you’ve reached the 38-week mark while others can offer to do one every week following the milestone until you go into labor. This generally depends on the doctor and practice protocol and you can ask about it earlier on in your pregnancy. If you feel unsure and have specific questions, talk to your doctor and have them address every concern until you decide what you want to do.

Can you do a membrane sweep on yourself?

Mama, if your bathtub sprang a leak, would you open up the walls and change all the pipes yourself? Unless you’ve had proper training, you would probably call the plumber as the expert in the field. Same goes for something as serious as membrane sweeping. Obstetricians get specialized training on the procedure to avoid doing any damage or harm to the cervix, which is why you should never take it upon yourself to conduct a sweeping of the membrane yourself.

If you’re looking for natural ways to induce labor try nipple stimulation, having an orgasm, eating spicy food, or taking long walks to do get labor started.

When should you not have a membrane sweep?

Your obstetrician will, of course, steer you in the right direction when it comes to membrane sweeping. If you’re curious why they might not offer it, though, a few common reasons could be to blame. If your doctor has informed you it isn’t safe for you to deliver vaginally, if you have experienced vaginal bleeding during your pregnancy, or if you need to be medically induced due to an emergent delivery, you shouldn’t have a membrane sweep.

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Other factors or conditions that may preclude you from this procedure include a prior C-section, history of preterm delivery, current bacterial cervical infection, placenta previa, and active herpes infection, fetal abnormalities, prior uterine rupture, vasa previa, abnormal fetal position, and Mullerian duct abnormalities.

Also, if you want to have a delivery that is natural and as hands-off as possible, you might want to forego membrane sweeping (unless there is a medical reason to kickstart labor).