What Is a Membrane Sweep?

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Membrane sweeping, also known as membrane stripping, is a procedure that can help induce labor. Membrane sweeping is sometimes recommended for pregnant people who are close to or past their due date.

During the procedure, your healthcare provider inserts a gloved finger into the cervix to loosen the amniotic sac from the uterus. Membrane sweeping can be done in your provider’s office and may speed up labor.

This article will describe the procedure of membrane sweeping, what to expect, and who should avoid it. 

Pregnant woman getting a pelvic exam at gynecologist

EmirMemedovski / Getty Images

Purpose of Membrane Sweeping

The purpose of membrane sweeping is to induce labor naturally in people who are at, near, or past their due date. Membrane sweeping can be used once the cervix has started to dilate but contractions have not yet begun. 

The procedure can induce labor by stimulating uterine contractions. Membrane sweeping induces labor by causing a release of hormones called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins soften the cervix and prepare the body for labor. 

Membrane sweeping is considered a low-risk procedure for most pregnant people. It is helpful because once pregnancy goes beyond 41–42 weeks, the risks to both the pregnant person and the fetus go up. 

Risk of Prolonged Pregnancy to Babies

Once pregnancy goes beyond 41–42 weeks, the risks to the baby include: 

  • Inadequate nutrition from the placenta (the temporary organ that develops in the uterus)
  • Birth injury 
  • Stillbirth
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar level)
  • Postmaturity syndrome (weight gain of the fetus stops)
  • Breathing problems from aspirating (breathing in) meconium (the first stool a baby passes)
  • Decreased amniotic fluid (fluid surrounding the fetus in the womb)

Risks of Prolonged Pregnancy to Pregnant People

The possible risks of prolonged pregnancy include: 

  • Longer labor
  • Assisted delivery with forceps or vacuum
  • Vaginal birth trauma due to the large size of the baby 
  • Cesarean delivery (C-section, surgical delivery of the infant)
  • Infection
  • Postpartum hemorrhage

Benefits of Membrane Sweeping

Membrane sweeping is an optional procedure that can lead to possible health benefits. After one to two weeks past your due date, your body’s placenta can no longer keep up with your baby’s nutritional needs. Labor is also riskier for those who are one to two weeks past their due date. 

The potential benefits of membrane sweeping include inducing labor naturally and avoiding medical induction. 

Is the Procedure Effective?

Membrane sweeping is an effective way to naturally induce labor. A study found that the time to delivery in people who had their membranes swept was 2.5 days shorter than those who did not undergo the procedure. Membrane sweeping has been linked to a decreased need for formal induction as well. 

The Procedure

Membrane sweeping will begin much like a pelvic exam. During an appointment, your healthcare provider will explain how membrane sweeping works and what to expect. You will be given a sheet to cover yourself once you undress from the waist down and rest back on the exam table. Your healthcare provider will then check your cervix to confirm that it is sufficiently dilated. The cervix is the opening to the uterus, and this procedure cannot be performed if the cervix is still closed.

The membranes, also called the amniotic sac, are the bag of water that surrounds the baby in the uterus. These membranes hold amniotic fluid, which protects the baby from injury during pregnancy. To sweep your membranes, your provider will insert one or two gloved fingers into your vagina and then into the cervix. Using small circular motions, your provider will loosen the amniotic sac from the wall of the uterus.  

Membrane sweeping is usually described as uncomfortable and even painful. The procedure is relatively quick, though. After your appointment, you may experience uterine cramping and spotting. If you notice bright-red bleeding that soaks a menstrual pad after the procedure, seek emergency care right away. If membrane sweeping was successful in inducing labor, you will likely begin feeling contractions within the first three days after your appointment. 

How Safe Is Membrane Sweeping?

Membrane sweeping is considered low risk for most pregnancies. A study found that sweeping the membranes increases the likelihood of spontaneous onset of labor and decreases the likelihood of needing a medical induction. Research shows that membrane sweeping does not significantly raise the risk of C-section, maternal death or serious morbidity (suffering), and neonatal death (death of the baby) or serious morbidity.  

Membrane sweeping can be performed once or sometimes weekly at the end of a pregnancy. Research shows that 88% of individuals who have undergone membrane sweeping in the past would have it again in a future pregnancy. 

Who Should Not Have a Membrane Sweep?

Membrane sweeping is safe for many people toward the end of their pregnancies. However, not everyone should undergo this procedure. People who should not have their membranes swept include those who:

  • Require a C-section
  • Cannot safely deliver vaginally
  • Have a history of vaginal bleeding
  • Need an emergency induction

Summary 

Membrane sweeping, also known as membrane stripping, is a procedure that can help induce labor in pregnant people who are close to or past their due date. The procedure involves your healthcare provider inserting a gloved finger into the cervix to loosen the amniotic sac from the uterus.

This motion can stimulate labor by causing uterine contractions. Membrane sweeping can be done in your provider’s office and is usually described as uncomfortable but relatively quick. The procedure has been found to increase the likelihood of spontaneous labor and decrease the risk of medical induction. 

A Word From Verywell

Once you reach the end of your pregnancy, you are likely feeling more than ready to meet your new baby. Membrane sweeping is safe for most pregnant people and may speed up labor. If you and your healthcare provider decide to try membrane sweeping to induce labor, be prepared for a short, uncomfortable procedure. It’s normal to have cramping and spotting afterward. If you experience severe pain or bleeding after the procedure, seek medical care right away. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you have a membrane sweep at 39 weeks?

    Membrane sweeping can be performed at 39 weeks for many people with uncomplicated pregnancies. Talk with your healthcare provider and ask if this is an option for you. 

  • Are there signs of a successful membrane sweep?

    The goal of membrane sweeping is to induce labor. After the procedure, it’s normal to experience cramping and spotting. If membrane sweeping successfully induces labor, you can expect to start feeling contractions up to three days after your appointment. 

  • What are the risks of a membrane sweep?

    Membrane sweeping is an uncomfortable procedure that can lead to cramping and spotting. Some people find the cramping so uncomfortable that they have trouble sleeping. If you experience heavy bleeding after membrane sweeping, see your healthcare provider right away.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Induction of labor at 39 weeks.

  2. Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. Post-term pregnancy.

  3. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. When pregnancy goes past your due date.

  4. Adams R, Lichorad A, Simmons J. Membrane sweeping to decrease rates of postdate induction. Am Fam Physician. 2017 Jan 1;95(1):35-36.

  5. Finucane EM, Murphy DJ, Biesty LM, et al. Membrane sweeping for induction of labour. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020;2(2):CD000451. Published 2020 Feb 27. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000451.pub3

  6. Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health. Membrane sweeping

Additional Reading

By Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH
Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH, is a health writer with over a decade of experience working as a registered nurse. She has practiced in a variety of settings including pediatrics, oncology, chronic pain, and public health.