The Ins and Outs of Membrane Sweeps - Your Ultimate Guide

Membrane sweeps are an intervention frequently given at the end of pregnancy to try and get labor to start or try and get the cervix more favorable for induction and childbirth. Membrane sweeps can be helpful, and, in some circumstances, they can be the final straw that gets someone to go into labor. In my experience, most of the time, it takes about 2-3 membrane sweeps to get labor going, and even then, if the body is not ready, it might not work at all.

Know the Risks

If you consent to a membrane sweep, knowing the procedure's risks is important to make a truly informed choice. The highest risk is that of possible infection. The more frequently that fingers go in the vagina, the more at risk one is of an infection. If the waters are intact, which is the case for most membrane sweeps, then the risk of infection goes down. The other risk is accidentally breaking the waters prematurely. If the waters break prematurely, it puts the birthing person on a timer for when they need to have given birth, and it is another risk for infection. For the most part, the risks from membrane sweeps are low, which is why these are so frequently given as an option.

What Does It Feel Like?

Another thing to note if you are considering a membrane sweep is that most individuals describe this intervention as extremely painful. The amount of discomfort differs from person to person and provider to provider, but it can be very uncomfortable at its best. For this reason alone, many pregnant individuals are refusing membrane sweeps, and we commend them for it. As much as it can be a great tool, introducing discomfort into the body, especially in such a vulnerable area, can be very traumatizing.

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If you are a survivor or have a history of trauma, membrane sweeps can feel very traumatic. The amount of discomfort and the procedure itself can feel very triggering and might do the opposite of its intended use. My best advice is that if you consent to a membrane sweep, you do so with much thought and intention on how it might impact you beforehand.

How Does It Work?

The best way to describe how a membrane sweep works is to have you envision an orange. Now imagine that you have sliced the top of the orange off, leaving an opening where you can see the orange pieces still inside the peel. If you were to stick your finger into the peel, sweeping along the side of the peel and the edge of the orange pieces, separating the orange from its peel, this is sort of what a membrane sweep is like. The care provider will use their fingers to separate the amniotic sac from being adhered to the side of your uterus. This action can bring on the production of prostaglandins, which can, in turn, throw someone into labor.

If you consent to a membrane sweep, remember that these often work best if done 2-3 times and even better if they are done back to back, either hours apart or once per day. It is also crucial to note that a membrane sweep will not put anyone into labor whose body is not ready to go into labor. If you are curious about how ready your body is for possible induction, ask your care provider about your Bishop’s Score. This score can indicate your body's susceptibility to induction attempts like membrane sweeps.


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