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What to Know About Membrane Sweeping

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 15, 2021

When you near the end of your pregnancy, your medical team watches you closely for signs that they may need to induce your labor. If your baby needs to be born sooner than everyone else counted on, membrane sweeping, also called sweep and stretch or membrane stripping, may be the labor-induction method your doctor chooses.

Understanding Labor Induction

Usually, a woman’s body goes into labor without much prompting, in preparation for a baby’s birth. But if you or your baby is at risk, your doctor may want to induce your labor sooner. 

There may be other, practical reasons why a doctor may want to induce. But labor induction techniques should not be used before 39 weeks’ gestation unless there is a medical reason‌.‌

Your cervix prepares for labor by:

  • Ripening, which is also called softening 
  • Opening, also called dilation‌
  • Thinning, also called effacement

These things may start to happen but then stall. Or your water may break, but contractions don’t follow. In these cases, a doctor may choose to induce labor, to stimulate the body’s progress‌.  ‌

Other conditions that call for inducing labor include:

  • Status of one or two weeks past the estimated due date
  • ‌High blood pressure
  • Placenta detached from the uterus
  • Infection
  • Lung disease
  • Diabetes‌

If your doctor doesn’t try membrane sweeping or another labor induction method, it increases your risk for a cesarean section delivery. While a C-section is sometimes necessary, it is considered higher-risk, so your doctor may want to avoid doing one if possible.

How Membrane Sweeping Works

Your doctor inserts a gloved finger into your vagina and up into your cervix to separate your water (amniotic) sac, or bag, from your uterus without breaking the sac. Your doctor uses this technique to urge your body to release prostaglandins, hormones that stimulate labor. As the water sac separates from your uterus, your cervix may soften and contractions may begin.‌

Your membranes can only be swept once your cervix opens enough for your doctor to insert a finger. Membrane sweeping to induce labor works for one in eight women. It’s one of the less risky labor-induction techniques.

Pros and Cons of Membrane Sweeping

Pros of membrane sweeping. The idea of forcing your body into labor may be daunting, but this technique has been used for decades.  

Compare membrane sweeping to other ways to induce labor: ‌

  • Taking medicine that softens your cervix
  • Taking medicine that causes your uterus to contract
  • Using a balloon catheter to encourage the cervix to open
  • Having medicine inserted vaginally to ripen your cervix

When membrane sweeping works and labor begins, there’s no need to help labor along with drugs like oxytocin, by breaking your water, or by using other, more invasive methods.

It’s considered a safe way to speed up your labor without increasing your risk for infection. It can also prevent you from needing to deliver via C-section‌.

Cons‌ of membrane sweeping. You may start to feel uncomfortable afterward, with irregular contractions and some bleeding. In addition, if membrane sweeping brings on too many contractions, your uterus may be overstimulated.‌

Too many contractions can put you at risk for:

  • Irregular fetal heart rate
  • Too much pressure on your umbilical cord
  • Uterine tear
  • Increased risk of cesarean birth‌
  • Fetal death

Medical problems you may have had before or during your pregnancy can also contribute to these complications. Your doctor will weigh the pros and cons of membrane sweeping before using it to induce your labor.

Risks of Not Having Labor Induced

Your health. If your doctor wants to sweep your membranes or use any other labor-induction technique around the time of your due date, take this into account: If you let your pregnancy go past full-term, you will be at greater risk of a difficult delivery as your baby continues to grow in utero. You’re also at an increased risk for a type of high blood pressure that's associated with pregnancy, after your due date.‌

Your baby’s health. Your baby is also at risk as your pregnancy stretches on. With each passing week, the placenta becomes less effective at passing nutrients and blood to your baby. A baby that grows larger than your birth canal will allow for, may be stressed during delivery. A C-section may become unavoidable.‌

Staying pregnant longer can increase the risk of your baby passing their first meconium stool in utero. If your baby breathes meconium in the birth canal, it greatly increases their risk of developing an infection. A baby born after 42 weeks of gestation also has an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: “Labor Induction.”

Journal of Obstetrics, Gynaecology & Reproductive Medicine: “Prolonged Pregnancy.”

University of Michigan Medicine: “Labor Induction and Augmentation.”

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