Membrane Sweep – 6 Facts To Consider Before Having One

Membrane Sweep - 6 Facts To Consider Before Having One

A membrane sweep is a method used to try and start labour artificially.

You may also know it as a stretch and sweep or stripping the membranes.

It’s commonly suggested as a means to start labour before trying medical induction methods.

A membrane sweep doesn’t involve any medication.

The idea behind a membrane sweep is to stimulate the production of prostaglandin, which is a hormone that prepares your cervix for labour.

Your care provider inserts a finger through your cervix and firmly moves their finger around in a circular motion, separating the membranes of the amniotic sac from your cervix.

A membrane sweep can seem like a better alternative to being medically induced. However it’s important to know it is still an intervention and you should be informed about your options to make the best choice for you and your baby.

6 Facts You Need To Know About A Membrane Sweep

Here are 6 facts to know about membrane sweeps:

#1: No Induction Method is Natural

One of the upsides to membrane sweeps is it doesn’t involve any medication. You may even hear it being referred to as a natural induction method.

Unfortunately that simply isn’t true. Any procedure that attempts to kickstart labour before it begins on its own is doing so by artificial means.

We know a little about the complex process of labour initiation and science has shown it involves a baby’s readiness for the outside world. You can read more about this in What Causes Labour To Start?.

However induction can be  a life saving intervention, when continuing on with pregnancy puts mothers and babies at risk. Having the option of trying for a non medical induction method may put you at ease with having to be induced.

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#2: It May Lead To Further Interventions

It can be tempting to try a membrane sweep when you are 38 weeks pregnant because your care provider is already talking induction at 40 week. You might feel completely over being pregnant, or worried your partner might not make it to the hospital in time.

But if a membrane sweep doesn’t bring on labour and your care provider doesn’t support waiting for labour to begin spontaneously, you are more likely to have a medical induction.

If your body and baby weren’t ready for labour to begin, you may end up with more interventions, such as forceps or vacuum assisted birth, or even a c-section.

Your baby may also experience problems due to being born early, especially breathing problems.

If an induction is necessary for medical reasons, a membrane sweep can seem like a gentler option than medical methods of induction. If you are in this situation, your care provider can assess your cervix and determine how likely a membrane sweep will help things along. You can also be better prepared for the possibility of needing more medical methods and have a plan for how to make those decisions.

#3: It Can Be Painful

If a membrane sweep is recommended for your situation, it can help to know what to expect.

During pregnancy, your cervix is closed and angled slightly back toward your tailbone (called posterior). When your body begins to prepare for labour, the cervix will soften and possibly even open slightly (around 1-2 finger widths). The position of the cervix can change and shift more forward.

However when these things happen differ between women and even pregnancies. Some women can have these changes happen in the weeks leading up to labour, others won’t until labour is noticeably beginning.

A membrane sweep is more easily performed if your cervix is what is called ‘favourable’. The cervix is soft, has shifted forward somewhat and is slightly open.

If the cervix is still posterior, it can be difficult for your care provider to reach, which can make the sweep uncomfortable or even painful.

If the cervix is closed but soft, your care provider can stretch or massage the cervix to stimulate it to begin to dilate. Stretching the cervix can feel very uncomfortable, and some women describe a sharp, shooting sort of pain.

After the membrane sweep, you may experience cramping and spotting or bleeding.

#4: You Have The Right To Decide

In a perfect world, no woman would ever have a medical procedure performed without her consent during pregnancy or birth.

Membrane sweeps are considered safe and effective in reducing pregnancy length, and this can lead to some care providers to do them routinely in the last weeks of pregnancy.

While this may be an option for women who are facing medical induction, it is still a procedure which needs your informed consent before it is performed.

You should be informed of this policy and your care provider needs to discuss with you the risks and benefits of membrane sweeping so you can make an informed choice whether to have the sweep or not.

Unfortunately, many women experience membranes sweeps during pre-natal appointments, and are not aware the procedure will be done until after it has occurred. This can be a very distressing and upsetting event.

#5: Safe And Effective

There is research showing membrane sweeps to be a safe and effective means of reducing pregnancy length and medical induction rates. Some of the studies show:

  • A membrane sweep at 41 weeks can reduce the chance of going past 42 weeks and being induced
  • On average a membrane sweep procedure shortens gestation by four days from when you would have gone into labour
  • A membrane sweep can reduce the use of synthetic oxytocin and increase vaginal birth rates

Studies on outcomes for membrane sweeps differ, but this independent Cochrane review of 22 trials showed eight women would need to have their membranes swept to avoid one medical induction. The authors concluded membrane sweeping didn’t produce clinically important benefit.

#6: Membrane Rupture

There is an increased risk, although small, of your membranes rupturing prematurely after a membrane sweep. This means the amniotic sac surrounding your baby breaks and fluid will begin to leak out.

There is an increased risk of infection if this happens and labour doesn’t begin within a certain timeframe. Your care provider may want to move to more medical methods of induction and it is wise to be prepared for this possibility.

If induction is necessary for medical reasons, a membrane sweep is not usually performed on its own – other methods are usually used.

However, a sweep may be undertaken if your cervix is very favourable, in the hope of avoiding further interventions.

The choice to have a membrane sweep should be made with full consideration of the risks and benefits for your personal situation, regardless of your care provider’s preference.

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Sam McCulloch Dip CBEd CONTRIBUTOR

Sam McCulloch enjoyed talking so much about birth she decided to become a birth educator and doula, supporting parents in making informed choices about their birth experience. In her spare time she writes . She is mother to three beautiful little humans.


27 comments

  1. Wow. This appears to be a one sided, patronising article indeed, based on 6 negative facts. It would have been a much better article had it also discussed the benefits of a membrane sweep, regardless as to the authors obvious personal opinion on the matter. As such, it’s not a very helpful article at all and appears to unfairly use rather obvious scare/emotional blackmail dressed up as ‘fact’ (i.e ‘you may not be the first to hold your baby’, ‘the start of a cascade of intervention’). This isn’t birth education, it’s projecting personal bias.

        1. just because you have your membranes swept does not eliminate the possibility of pitocin. If your water breaks and you are not in labor….guess what.

      1. Well someone like me who is a week overdue with a toddler does find this to be positive. Avoiding medical induction if at all possible makes this a good option. Been stuck at 3 cm for almost 2 weeks. Oh and I’m sure that the pain of a sweep is favorable to the pain of a medically induced labor which I have also had.

    1. The article is written by a doula. I find they all are in the “natural camp”..
      I’m of the opinion that medical interventions are innovations to assist with and make troublesome things easier. There is a reason these procedures are available, and I think it’s fair to say they were designed with the best intentions as opposed to harm.

      I just had this procedure done today. That’s why I’m looking it up. Didn’t get given this much info but am grateful because I would have been so scared. I think the doctor is clever for a) choosing to do this and b) saving me the psychological trauma of anticipating it.

    2. My ob for my dd did a membrane sweep at 39 weeks during an exam without my consent. She brushed it off like it was no big deal. My water broke 24 hours later but labor never started, thus began a long series of interventions which concluded with a cesarean. These facts are much needed, and although they wouldn’t have helped me because I didnt have a choice, I’m glad that women can read about some of the side effects the doctors may not mention.

      1. Also, I want to point out that the name of the article is “Membrane Sweep – Six Facts to Consider Before Having One” It seems to me that the article isn’t misleading at all. The use of the word “consider” implies that the article will be mostly cons of the procedure. I am currently 39 weeks and 3 days pregnant hoping for a vbac. Membrane sweeping is the only option I have in my area for induction if labor does not start spontaneously. I will definitely have it done to at least try for a vbac knowing that a cesarean is possible being that I have no other options. However other expectant mothers especially first time mothers need to be aware or the risks they are taking if it is offered. Hopefully they have a choice and don’t find out the risks without consenting.

      2. This exact thing happened to me too, and due to the interventions my daughter was never able to breastfeed. It was very painful and I always thought something wasn’t right about it, but didn’t think about it until I saw in the news recently that my doctor was suspended for inducing labor without the patients’ consent.

    3. Hi Gemma
      Everything that is said in this article happened to me. It all started with a stretch and sweep. The procedure was incredibly painful and I bled a fair bit. My cervix was not ripe… it was just I reached my due date. I went on to be induced by gels twice, a pitocin drip, had my membranes ruptured (horrific experience) and then ended up with a c-section when the drip didn’t work. I was not the first person to hold my baby. I was in hospital being induced in these ways for over a week!!! Its not called a cascade of intervention for nothing. There are also plenty of failed inductions recorded on womens birth charts every day. Turns out if your baby is not ready to come no amount of induction even the strongest pitocin drip all day will not start it. Articles like this are essential to give people the understanding of the ramifications of a seemingly innocent procedure. I was given no information about all of these risks prior to my stretch and sweep being suggested. I certainly did not have any understanding of informed consent nor was it offered to me in a way I felt I had the right to say no. Keep up the good work bellybelly!

    4. Thank you for articulating this, I feel the same way! I can’t believe how poorly this was written and how fearful it would make a woman trying to induce a natural birth. It is the opposite of empowering.

  2. I find this to be very informative. Of course you can go and do your own further research on what the pros are. However I do agree the cons outweigh them. It’s not natural. Doctors need to stop intervening in something that naturally will happen on its own. All women need and deserve to be informed.

    1. I want you to look at this again when you’re overdue and all sore… this is the most natural intervention definitely better than induction or csection. Our Surgery neither Triage will not sweep before w40 so I don’t see anything wrong with that.

  3. I have been told I will need to have a sweep at 38 weeks due to having Lupus. I will do whatever it takes to make sure my baby has the best possible life chance. I didn’t find this article reassuring and think that perhaps looking at both pros and cons would have made this article/ opinion a better one.

  4. The title of the article should be ‘why not to have a membrane sweep’. Extremely misleading and one sided article. Does not talk about babies that are overdue up to 42 weeks.
    Not helpful at all and seems based on the writer’s personal views.

    1. Babies aren’t overdue up to 42 weeks, they’re overdue after 42 weeks.
      And the ‘pros’ of having a membrane sweep are everywhere. The doctors and midwives literally can’t wait to start mentioning intervention. The cons are not that easy to find- so it’s good to have an article that talks about them so that women aren’t just blindly following as the professionals say and then looking back after a battering experience and wondering why the birth of their child ended up requiring so much medical intervention.

  5. Very helpful article. I don’t understand what pros people are looking for. It’s done to accelerate birth and some women want it at whatever cost. For those of us who want to trust the nature, we want to be aware of risks of these procedures. I was overdue with my baby and I’m convinced that the only reason, I gave birth without interventions was because I was in a birthing center with midwives and not doctors. It was slow and had some irregularities, but I could do it myself without forceps and the like. I have several friends who were induced and ended up with forceps and they suffered a lot after…

  6. Very informative and I pray you continue writing such articles as this information is not given as straightforward as you have. It’s a shame about some of the comments but most are simply brainwashed and what can be done. My sister in law recently gave birth and exactly as explained above had happened – though she was offered the membrane sweep as if it was ‘natural’ (this was one week before her due date). She wanted a natural experience but yep she got the whole package instead.. V long labour, resulting in a c-section togetbit over with. Good job and thank you very much.

  7. I was considering the sweep at 40 weeks as my midwife said I could choose that option to speed up the process if I’m late but I didn’t consider the possible after effects so actually I found this article helpful as it gave a good perspective on the possible outcomes. So I now believe it’s best to wait as long as you can for a more natural birth process but I will consider it at 42 weeks if I haven’t given birth.

  8. There are obvious benefits to a sweep! It’s a shame they are not stated in this article. Woman who go over 42 weeks are at increased risk of still birth for a start. All this rubbish about trusting nature..care givers are there to provide care, without them mortality rates would be much higher (just like they are in poorer countries with less intervention). I agree with the above comments, this article is not helpful in the slightest and scares woman who have been advised for good reason to have a sweep followed by an induction.

  9. Here I am, almost 30 years after my daughter was born trying to figure out why she has been prone to health issues all her life. I underwent the membrane stripping at my doctor’s office since I was 2 weeks late. I can’t remember exactly how long after this painful, intrusive act (felt more like a fist than a finger) I went into labor but it was no more than 2 days. At her delivery we both spiked fevers. Long story short, she was septic with Beta Strep and my big, 7.5 baby was in the neonatal intensive care unit for 10 days on IV antibiotics. The bacteria was never isolated on me. Thank heavens her spinal fluid/brain was not affected. I understand now that the antibiotics given at such an early age altered her normal flora. She was a big baby and I breast fed which must have been good for her prognosis. I also remember one very extreme, horrible reaction she experienced at 18 mo to a vaccination (though I am not here stating that one should not immunize their children or themselves but I do wonder about immunizations on her since her normal flora was knocked off due to IV antibiotics). I speak up here since the decisions you make in life follow you around! Today she suffers from extreme allergies and carries 2 epi pen everywhere with her since she travels frequently for work. After all these years I am still trying to find answers to my child’s health issues. In conclusion, I don’t think all articles need to have or should have both pros and cons to an issue. The title is inclusive. Look elsewhere for more information/research if you think indicated.

  10. I’m still not aware of the cause of why my baby was stillborn but I know for a fact that it went down hill as soon as I had a sweep done (she died within 24 hours of having it done) , I was told there were no risks to having It done so I happily went ahead, honestly reading this article would have helped me as I was only told of positives, if I knew these facts I wouldn’t have had it done and she might be here in my arms today

    1. Abbie, so sad about your loss. But please do not blame yourself. It is unlikely that anything you did or did not do was responsible. Sometimes stillbirths just happen and so often nobody really understands why. I hope you have someone to talk to who can help you work through this terrible loss.

  11. I think this is a very well-presented article. A lot of women today want to jump-start labour for non-medical reasons, e.g. tired of being pregnant, don’t want to wait any longer to meet baby et cetera. (Obviously if the baby is in distress then it’s a different story and that’s when we would want labour to be induced, and should be grateful for all the procedures available to us today.)

    Artificially induced labour generally carries more risks for both mother and baby.

    I hope everyone has a safe delivery regardless of what you choose <3

  12. I also had a stretch and sweep at 37.5wks without consent after being told by a previous doctor I could go to full term (40wks). The argument was my baby would be “too big” due to gestational diabetes, despite the fact that according to all ultrasounds and scans my baby was not, in fact too big he was born at 3.2kgs. Also turns out the criteria for gestational diabetes was too rigid (my resting blood sugar was 5 and they wanted under 4.7) and according to other hospitals in the area I did not even meet the criteria for gestational diabetes. I found the process invasive and there was no respect for my wishes as a mother. My son has always been under the 5th percentile and sometimes less for his weight and I have struggled to help him put on weight. I believe this to be a direct result from excessive amounts of insulin just to bring my restin f blood sugar levels down by .3, and artificial induction of labor, he simply was not allowed time to “fatten up”, which we know occurs from the last two weeks of pregnancy. He was also born quite weak with a sucking reflex that was not strong enough to stimulate my milk production. We also know that babies practice suckling reflex during the last two weeks of gestation. If it wasn’t for me persevering with pumps to stimulate my milk production I would not have been able to successfully establish breast feeding. I think generic application of interventions based on litigation fears rather than the individual needs of mother and baby rules the public health system. I found the over application of intervention and absolute disregard for my voice and my baby’s natural needs appalling. I am pro intervention when it avoids death but not when it is over applied. The lack of communication between treating obstetricians and lack of consent before doing the procedure was also completely unprofessional and unethical. The truth is my induction was more about their roster at the hospital than the actual needs of my child. Nature doesn’t work when we want it to according to schedules where an overdemand forces burnt out obstricians to do invasive procedures so they an go home to sleep. I am greatful for any information that can be accessed regarding interventions such as this as it’s better than what I was provided, which was no information and no choice what so ever.

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