Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you’ve done to try and bring on labour – if your baby isn’t ready, you might see your pregnancy due date replaced by an overdue date. When this happens, your midwife and obstetric team will talk to you about trying to move things along – this could involve a membrane sweep or other methods of induction
What is a membrane sweep?
A membrane sweep can also be called a cervical sweep, a stretch and sweep, and a plain old sweep. Whatever the name, it comprises of a vaginal examination where a midwife uses her finger to sweep the neck of your womb. Your midwife will put a finger inside your vagina and move it in a circular sweeping motion around your cervix, the aim being to separate the sac surrounding your baby from the cervix.
The manual stimulation of the cervix can trigger the release of hormones called prostaglandins, which can trigger labour. You shouldn’t try to do the procedure yourself at home – a DIY membrane sweep isn’t a good idea. The good news is that it doesn't increase the risk of infection to you or your baby, so it may be worth asking for one if you're sitting there clock watching.
Why you could need a sweep
You could be offered a membrane sweep if:
- Your baby is overdue
- You have a medical condition such as gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia that means it would be advisable for your baby to be born on their due date
When the sweep happens
You should be offered a membrane sweep before any other kind of induction method is tried. NICE guidelines recommend trying to induce labour with a sweep at any time after 40 weeks.
What happens during a membrane sweep?
A membrane sweep will take the form of an ordinary vaginal examination such as a cervical smear – and it can be uncomfortable. It's quite common to experience a 'bloody show' afterwards, so you might want to wear a sanitary towel. It could be a good opportunity to practise any breathing or relaxation techniques you’ve been planning to use in labour.
Membrane sweep effectiveness
Membrane sweeps aren’t always effective – and even when they are, they can take up to 48 hours to work. For this reason, it’s suggested that you don’t wait for labour to become absolutely necessary before having a sweep. If your membrane sweep doesn’t work, you might be offered another one – some women have multiple sweeps.
It's hard to know the exact success rate of membrane sweeps. What is known is that membrane sweeps make spontaneous labour more likely, which in turn makes other induction methods less likely to be necessary.
Risks of having a membrane sweep
There really aren’t that many, and so it's more a case of giving a sweep a go before trying other methods of induction.
- It could be uncomfortable or cause you pain or bleeding
- It could mean that your waters are accidentally broken, which can increase the risk of infection to you or your baby. If this happens and you don’t go into labour soon afterwards, your doctor or midwife might suggest another form of induction or a c-section.
What Mumsnetters' say
“I had a sweep at 41 weeks. I felt mild contractions after six hours and my baby was born 12 hours later. I found the sweep painful, but compared to the pain of the actual childbirth it was like stubbing your toe. "
“I had a sweep from a 6' 4” male midwifery student with hands like shovels… very effective."
“I discovered I'm really not fond of pineapple. Curry didn't work and sex was the last thing I felt like. Midwife doing a thorough rummage and 'pulling the cevix round' did the trick. I felt like one of those cows in a veterinary programme but was glad not to have an induced labour.”