Membrane sweep: everything you need to know

A membrane sweep is said to help bring on labour if you're overdue. But how does it work, what does it feel like and will it actually do what it's meant to?

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A membrane sweep – sometimes referred to as a cervical sweep – is something you might be offered if you go overdue on your birth date.

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It can be done during a normal internal examination and involves your doctor or midwife using her finger to literally “sweep” around the cervix (the neck of your womb) to detach the membranes around your baby ?

As our favourite GP, Dr Philippa Kaye (read more about Philippa on her dedicated website) explains: “The aim is to sweep the membranes or sac which surrounds the baby away from the cervix and in doing so stimulate the production of hormones which then starts labour.

“Even if the midwife can’t actually sweep the membranes away by inserting a finger into the cervix you can stretch it and massage it slightly, and again, help start labour.”

Can’t quite imagine what it’s like? Mum twonklemum on our forum had one and explains what happens: “Basically the midwife uses a lubricant and puts her fingers inside your vagina, reaching up to the cervix which she then ‘sweeps’ her fingers around.

“It is a bit painful because your body goes into self-defence mode and you contract your muscles in an attempt to protect yourself but it may well get things going by stimulating your cervix.”

You definitely shouldn’t try this one at home ?  But it can be a useful way of stimulating labour if you’re overdue and other traditional methods of encouraging birth haven’t worked.

When will you be offered a membrane sweep?

If this is your first pregnancy, it’s recommended that you’re offered a membrane sweep at your 40 week antenatal appointment. If you choose not to and still haven’t gone into labour by week 41, you’ll be offered the chance again.

If this isn’t your first baby, you’ll be routinely offered a sweep at 41 weeks.

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What’s the success rate of a membrane sweep starting labour?

A membrane sweep won’t definitely start your labour. In many cases, it will only work if your cervix is already nearly “ripe” and softened ready for birth.

As Dr Philippa Kaye, advises: “A sweep works best if the cervix is soft and already slightly dilated to about 2cm.”

“If it doesn’t work the first time, you may be offered another sweep a few days or a week later. After this, more comprehensive methods of induction are available,” says Dr Philippa.

When we looked into information based on trials that had been done regarding the success rate of membrane sweeps for starting labour, we discovered that on average, having a sweep can cut your pregnancy by between 1 and 4 days – according to Evidence-based Birth.

Will a membrane sweep hurt during and after you have it?

As mentioned above, a membrane sweep can feel a little uncomfortable, as your cervix may be difficult to reach before you go into labour.

Some women do find it a little painful, so try to relax and practice any breathing techniques you may have learnt in antenatal classes, if you had them.

“The examination and sweep take a few minutes and can be quite uncomfortable, so keep breathing!” Dr Philippa advises.

Some of the mums on our forum did find themselves in quite some pain after their sweep too, as mum Cher tells us: “I had a sweep done a week before I was due and it really was the sorest pain I’ve experienced.

“In fact after it I had to lay in bed for a while as I was in so much pain. I had a show a few days after it also and then was induced 2 days later so I’m not sure if it did anything for me.”

And when we checked out an article on PubMed.gov – the US National Library of Medicine website – titled Membrane Sweeping For Induction of Labour (read the full article) the final comment does suggest the benefits of having a membrane sweep may not necessarily outweigh the discomforts/pain of having a membrane sweep:

“Routine use of sweeping of membranes from 38 weeks of pregnancy onwards does not seem to produce clinically important benefits.

“When used as a means for induction of labour, the reduction in the use of more formal methods of induction needs to be balanced against women’s discomfort and other adverse effects.” ?

However, it does seem as though the pain of a sweep – afterwards as well as during – can vary. DanielleMFM says:

“When I was pregnant with my 2 kids… both… were late – one 10 days the other 11 days – I had loads of sweeps. With my first, they didn’t hurt a bit – with my second child they hurt.”

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How soon after a membrane sweep will my labour start?

Dr Philippa tells us that if you have a sweep, there is approximately a 50% chance it will start labour in 24-48 hours.

“The best I have ever heard of was in antenatal clinic where a woman had a sweep, left clinic and was walking down the corridor when her waters broke and contractions started!” she reveals.

Is it normal to have bleeding after a membrane sweep?

Yes, it is, say Philippa. “It is normal to have some cramps or irregular contractions afterwards, hopefully you will then get some regular contractions afterwards meaning it worked. You can also get some minor bleeding after a sweep.”

As Dr Philippa says, immediately after your sweep, you may notice irregular contractions and some women experience spotting.

In addition, if the sweep has worked, you may have a “bloody show” as the mucus plug sealing your womb comes out.

Erinsmummy on our forum explains that this is exactly what happened to her: “I had a sweep with both my babies and went into labour the next day with the first and the same day with the second.

“I had bleeding after both too, brown to start with, then pinky/red. Followed by a show.”

This may be followed by your waters breaking, though this may not happen until you’re in full-blown labour. You’ll then start to have contractions as your body begins to give birth.

Can you have a water birth if you’ve had membrane sweep?

Oooh, good question, especially as we know lots of mums-to-be like the idea of having a water birth if it’s at all possible.

“If you have a cervical sweep you can still have a water birth,” Dr Philippa tells us. “If the sweep doesn’t work and you are induced, depending on the method used, you may or may not be able to get in the water.”

Images: Getty Images

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