What is a Membrane Sweep and Do You Need One for Labor?

A pregnant woman is standing in front of a door with sheer white curtains. She is wearing a heather grey dress and has her left hand under her stomach and her right hand on top.

I like to joke that our eldest daughter must have implanted into my uterus with cement because she had zero interest in coming out. At almost two weeks past my due date, I was desperate to get labor going but didn’t want to deal with induction, which is when my doctor suggested a membrane sweep.

I’d never heard the term “stripping your membranes” or any of the other phrases used for this procedure and was slightly put off by the sound of the process.

Alas, I wanted to do anything I could to get that baby out besides induction, so I quickly signed up for cervix “manipulation,” so my doctor could get the party started.

Imagine my surprise when spontaneous labor suddenly began mere hours after my appointment. 

Moral of the story: membrane stripping worked for me.

This doesn’t mean that the process is for everyone. As with most procedures, there are risks involved. 

Read on if you’re thinking about asking your doctor to sweep your membranes. You’ll find tons of great information about this obstetric procedure’s benefits, risks, and success rates.

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What is a Membrane Sweep?

So, you want to know what a membrane sweep is? Get ready because you might not like the sound of it!

Membrane stripping occurs when a doctor separates the amniotic membranes that attach your baby’s amniotic sac to your uterine wall. This process often helps speed up labor or make current contractions more “productive.”

My Experience With Membrane Stripping

During my first pregnancy and my second, I wanted to have a natural labor and delivery without medication. I’d read articles claiming that labor induction drugs could make the labor process challenging, and I was dead-set on doing everything I could to avoid them.

When my doctor and nurses suggested a membrane sweep, I was curious but terrified.

I’d never heard of the process, and none of my friends were kind enough to warn me this could be a “thing.” I decided to go for it in hopes it would be the trick I needed to meet my goal of a drug-free delivery. 

An hour or two after leaving the office, I was sitting at lunch, starting to feel “weird.” I couldn’t put my finger on what was happening, but I knew something was different. 

Then I went shopping with my mom and felt so much activity in my body that she believed my water was about to break on the $500 bench I was sitting on in Home Goods.

By that night, my nearly two weeks late self was throwing last-minute things into my hospital bag for mom and running out the door!

So, despite starting the day not knowing what a membrane sweep was, I discovered a deep appreciation for this gynecological stratagem!

A BIPOC woman wearing a grey and white striped shirt is talking to a BIPOC doctor.
Membrane sweeping… what is it? We’re sharing everything you need to know!

Can Anyone Have Their Membranes Swept? 

When doctors check your cervix during the final trimester of pregnancy, they’re doing so to assess your Bishop Score. This rating tells them how close you are to labor and delivery. 

Using this information, your healthcare provider can determine whether you’re a good candidate for a membrane sweep. 

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Membrane sweeps can’t occur before 39 weeks of gestation.
  • Once you reach 42 weeks of pregnancy, you’re no longer eligible for membrane stripping.
  • You must be at least 1cm dilated for sweeping.
  • If your pregnancy is high-risk or you suffer from certain medical conditions, this procedure might not be a safe option (ask your doctor for more information).
  • If it seems like you will need a c-section, your doctor might not recommend stripping your membranes.

During a study on membrane sweeping, researchers determined that having a completely closed cervix counted as an “exclusion criterion” for the stripping process since doctors need clear access to the top of the cervix for the technique. 

Inclusion criteria primarily consisted of patients already experiencing dilation, thinning, and softening of their cervix. 

Can Someone Who’s Group B Strep Positive Get a Membrane Sweep?

During pregnancy, you will undergo a Group B Strep (GBS) screening before delivery. GBS is an infection that cannot typically affect us but can pass on to our babies.

It used to be said that if you were GBS-positive, you weren’t eligible for a membrane sweep. In recent years, however, these guidelines seem to be changing.

A study conducted with a control group of 542 expectant moms found membrane stripping to be a safe obstetrical practice among anyone who tested positive for GBS. Of the participants, 135 were GBS-positive and didn’t experience any neonatal challenges.

When Will Membrane Sweeping Usually Occur?

Many doctors won’t offer patients a membrane sweep until their 40-week or 41-week appointment. Occasionally, though, they will try them around 39 weeks if there’s a medical reason to do so. 

What Are the Benefits of Membrane Sweeping?

Many of us consider labor induction because we’re ready to get the show on the road so we can meet our babies sooner. However, the most common reason soon-to-be mamas get their membranes stripped is to avoid medical induction.

Often, as we approach our due dates, doctors will start planning to induce by a specific date. 

While this is a valid option for some, others would rather let the process start more naturally, especially if they feel rushed to make an induction decision before they’re ready.

I’ve heard horror stories from other moms whose doctors pushed them into getting induced for nonsensical reasons, like upcoming holidays or vacation plans.

Aside from the discomfort of late-stage pregnancy and readiness to meet our little ones, there is also a higher risk of health problems after your due date. Since membrane sweeps can encourage your body to start contracting and laboring, they can lower the chances of problems for mom and/or baby.

Why Do Some People Want to Avoid Medical Induction?

While medical inductions are a common practice in the field of obstetrics, not every mama wants one, but why? Is there a reason many of us don’t want to consent to getting induced? 

The short answer is yes.

As a general rule, medical inducement is a safe practice for us and our babies. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s a flawless process. Keep reading to learn more about why some expectant moms try to avoid getting induced.

1. Increased Pain During Labor

There’s no denying that labor will be painful. That said, many experts believe that certain induction drugs, i.e., Pitocin, can cause more intense contractions than we would have during naturally occurring labor. 

2. Failed Induction

No matter how much medication the doctors and nurses give you to get the show started, hospital inductions sometimes don’t work. Not only is this costly, but it can also lead to an increased risk of cesarean section instead of vaginal delivery. 

3. Negative Side Effects for Babies

The increased and more intense contractions experienced because of induction drugs like oxytocin and prostaglandins can cause a drop in your baby’s oxygen levels and heart rate.

4. Greater Risk of Postpartum Hemorrhage

Studies show that medical inductions can cause a higher rate of dangerous postpartum bleeding and hemorrhage in low-risk individuals. 

If you’re concerned about various labor induction methods, be sure to talk to your doctor during your next appointment. Less intensive options, like membrane sweeping, might be something they’re willing to consider.

How Will Your Doctor Perform a Membrane Sweep?

Trust me when I say the things I’m about to tell you sound much scarier than they actually are. While having your membranes stripped might not be the most pleasant experience in the world, it’s not as bad as you think!

Your doctor will insert a gloved finger into your vagina to the lower part of the uterus. They will move their finger in a circular sweeping motion along the top of your cervical opening to detach the membranes from the wall of your uterus. 

By separating the amniotic sac from your uterus, your body will start producing prostaglandins – these hormone chemicals help dilate and soften your cervix for childbirth.

With any luck, this will jumpstart labor and bring you one start closer to meeting your baby.

Note: Sometimes, a membrane sweep will result in your water breaking. This is OKAY! Doctors only use this induction method when you’re full-term and it’s safe for your baby to make their debut.  

Can You Strip Your Membranes On Your Own?

While many doctors view membrane sweeping as a gentle labor induction technique, that doesn’t mean anyone can try it at home. After all, our healthcare teams go to school for obstetrics and gynecology so they can do the hard work for us!

They know the right way to handle a membrane sweep for pregnant women to ensure no injury occurs to the cervix.

Is Membrane Sweeping Painful?

I won’t lie – getting your membranes stripped by the doctor probably won’t feel great. I remember quite a bit of pressure during the process. Many of us will experience some discomfort and mild pain during the sweep.

Thankfully, the whole thing only lasts a couple of minutes. It might not be enjoyable, but it will be over before you know it.

Understanding the Side Effects of Membrane Sweeps

With a bit of luck, the main side effect of membrane stripping you’ll experience is labor! Hopefully, you’ll notice the signs of cervical ripening and dilation shortly after the sweep is complete.

That said, though, there are some other membrane-sweeping side effects you should be aware of, including:

  • Cramping: It’s not unusual to experience mild cramping for around 24 hours after your membranes are stripped. After my sweep, it felt similar to my regular period cramps.
  • Light Spotting or Bleeding: You may notice some bleeding after the process. This can be red, pink, or brown. 
  • Bloody Show: To go along with mild bleeding, some mamas experience a bloody show after a doctor ruptures their membranes. This is essentially blood that’s mixed with vaginal mucus.
  • Irregular Uterine Contractions: Before actual labor begins, you might notice some inconsistent contractions after your sweep. 

All of the side effects above are normal. However, if you’re concerned about a symptom after your membrane sweep, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor.

Are There Risks When a Doctor Strips Your Membranes?

Discomfort and light bleeding might be expected, but is there anything else to concern yourself with after a membrane sweep?

Not usually.

Overall, stripping your membranes is a safe, non-invasive technique. In the past, people worried about their water breaking during the process, but if you’re at a healthy gestational age, this isn’t a problem. 

Do Membrane Sweeps Always Induce Labor?

Most of the time, your doctor or midwife will use membrane sweeping as an option to jumpstart labor. The question is, does it always work?

Sadly, no.

While many healthcare professionals consider membrane strips a reliable substitute for medical inductions in the hospital, they’re not always effective. After all, if your baby is not ready to come out, no coaxing and sweet talk will get them to leave their cozy uterine home.

While the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada asserts that “routine sweeping of membranes promotes the onset of labour and that this simple technique decreases induction rates,” nothing is ever 100% guaranteed when it comes to membrane sweeps and labor induction. 

How Long Until Labor Starts After Sweeping Membranes?

If your post-term pregnancy membrane sweep is a success and labor is on the way, you’ll probably wonder how long you have until everything starts.

While everyone is different, most experts state that labor will begin within 48 hours of induction. So if you have a doula, make sure you let them know what’s going on!

For me, I started experiencing active labor contractions within 12 hours of my sweep. Less than 24 hours post-membrane stripping, I was en route to the hospital and ready to deliver.

Can Your Doctor Perform More Than One Membrane Stripping?

Every healthcare provider is different, but many will offer to perform at least one sweep. If you’re not quite ready and that one doesn’t work, though, they might be willing to do one a week after you’ve reached full term. 

A woman wearing a light cream dress is sitting at a table looking at a tablet.
What is membrane sweeping and do you need it? Here’s what you need to know!

Other Techniques for Natural Labor Induction

If your membrane stripping didn’t work or you’re looking for other tools to use in addition to it, you have some options. There are several other natural labor induction methods that many people swear by. Keep reading to learn about some popular techniques.

Remember: you should only try these with your doctor’s approval!

1. Acupuncture

Not only is acupuncture good for things like infertility and anxiety during pregnancy, but it’s also a useful tool for labor induction. Various studies prove that receiving acupuncture treatments can help prepare your cervix for labor. 

2. Going On Walks

Toward the end of my second pregnancy, I went on at least one or two daily walks. I was bound and determined to start laboring earlier than I did the first go-around. Some professionals think walking helps engage our cervixes and pull our babies into the birthing position. 

3. Having Sex

I’m sure you’ve heard a partner or two suggest a roll in the hay as a great way of inducing labor. In reality, though, is there any truth to this technique?

The answer is a resounding…maybe.

While getting busy might not work the way you think it will, some evidence shows that it can be beneficial.

Sperm contains prostaglandins, the same chemicals that help with cervical ripening. The logic is that by having unprotected sex during pregnancy, the hormones in sperm might help prepare your cervix for delivery.

4. Evening Primrose Oil

During pregnancy, one of my midwives suggested I try evening primrose oil to get my body ready for childbirth.

The logic behind using this supplement is that it encourages cervical softening and thinning.

5. Raspberry Leaf Tea

So, I’ve heard varying information about how raspberry leaf tea affects a person’s labor and delivery. While there’s no hard proof it will jumpstart labor, studies show that it can better prepare your body and lower the chances you’ll need interventions, such as a c-section or forceps during childbirth.

Again, before you try any of these natural induction techniques, run them by your physician. They can instruct you on which options are best for your unique circumstances.

Would You Consider Having a Membrane Sweep?

While having your doctor “sweep your amniotic membranes” might sound unpleasant, the membrane stripping process is an excellent obstetrical tool for anyone approaching those last weeks of pregnancy.

It might not work for everyone, but it’s a trusted technique for inducing labor without harsh drugs and hospital stays. 

So, what do you think? Is a membrane sweep something you would be willing to do during pregnancy?