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What’s A Membrane Sweep? Everything To Know About This Pregnancy Procedure

From benefits to risks and everything in between.

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A pregnant woman meets with her obstetrician
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By the time you hit 39 weeks in your pregnancy — a milestone known to expectant people 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 health care practitioners use 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 if it's safe, keep reading for a full rundown of 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 insert a gloved finger into your vagina and then into the cervix. They'll make a circular, or "sweeping," movement with the finger to separate the amniotic sac from the sides of the uterus near the cervix.

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 that a membrane sweep is virtually risk-free, 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 are no other signs of labor, your baby becomes 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. Granted, 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. According to the Cleveland Clinic, 90% of those who had a membrane sweep gave birth by 41 weeks compared to 75% who didn't have the procedure.

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.).

A membrane sweep can lead to childbirth a few days earlier, but there are no guarantees.

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! So, what are the signs a membrane sweep has worked? 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 could lead to mild contractions for days (or even weeks) before you enter 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 begun. If you are in severe pain or bleeding heavily 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 stretch between 39 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 reach that 39-week milestone. Your cervix must already be partially opened for the sweep to be performed.

How often can you have a membrane sweep?

Some obstetricians may do a membrane sweep once when you've reached the 39-week mark, while others do more than one spaced 48 hours apart. This generally depends on the doctor and practice protocol, which you can ask about earlier in your pregnancy. If you have specific questions, talk to your doctor and have them address every concern until you decide what you want to do. A cervical sweep should always start with your consent.

Can you do a membrane sweep on yourself?

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 should call the plumber as the expert in the field. The same goes for something as serious as membrane sweeping. Obstetricians get specialized training on the procedure to avoid damaging or harming the cervix, which is why you should never take it upon yourself to sweep the membrane.

In other words, do not — do not — try this at home. A trained healthcare professional should always do membrane sweeping.

When should you not have a membrane sweep?

If your doctor has informed you it isn't safe 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.

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, an active herpes infection, fetal abnormalities, prior uterine rupture, vasa previa, abnormal fetal position, and Mullerian duct abnormalities.

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