Membrane sweep: One way to get your labor started

Membrane stripping (also known as a membrane sweep) is a procedure done to help induce labor if you're full term and your cervix is already somewhat dilated.

woman having membrane sweep
Photo credit: / EmirMemedovski

What is a membrane sweep?

A membrane sweep (also called membrane stripping) is typically done during a regular office visit. Similar to an internal exam, your practitioner inserts a finger into your vagina and up through the cervix, then manually separates the amniotic sac from the lower part of your uterus with a sweeping motion. This triggers the release of prostaglandins, which may help further ripen your cervix and get contractions going.

membrane sweep illustration

When would I need a membrane sweep?

Your practitioner may suggest membrane stripping if you're near or past your due date. A pregnancy that goes longer than 41 or 42 weeks puts you and your baby at greater risk for problems. For example, the placenta may become less effective at delivering nutrients and oxygen to your baby, increasing the risk of a stillbirth or serious problem for your newborn.

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If your practitioner is concerned that you or your baby aren't doing well, they may suggest a C-section or a quicker method of induction. 

Are membrane sweeps safe?

Yes, membrane stripping is safe when it's done at full term (39 to 41 weeks). Researchers have found that women who have a membrane sweep aren’t more likely than other women to end up having a C-section or other complications.

Is membrane stripping effective?

Generally, yes. One study reported that 90 percent of women who had a membrane sweep delivered by 41 weeks, compared to 75 percent of women who didn't have one.

Membrane stripping might be most effective if you're past your due date.

Membrane stripping isn’t as effective as other methods of induction, such as using Pitocin. It’s generally only used in situations when there isn’t a pressing medical reason to induce.

What should I expect after a membrane sweep?

After the membrane sweep, you typically go home and wait for labor to start, usually within the next couple days. You may have some spotting and cramping during this time. However, if you’re having a lot of bleeding or pain, call your practitioner or go to the hospital.

What's it like to have a membrane sweep?

Here's how BabyCenter mom Michelle Stein describes it:

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"I've had four babies and three membrane sweeps. Each was a bit different.

Getting a membrane sweep feels kind of like a rough cervical check. During my first sweep, with my second baby, my whole body involuntarily recoiled. It’s a lot of pressure in a highly sensitive place. But although it was super uncomfortable for 10 seconds or so, I wouldn’t say it was particularly painful. I grimaced through the awkwardness and got through it by focusing my thoughts on the hope that labor wouldn’t be far away.

I got the sweep at an afternoon OB appointment and scheduled an induction for the following morning. By the time I showed up for the induction at 6 a.m., I was having regular contractions. They went ahead and gave me some Pitocin anyway. My daughter was born in less than four hours.

When I had my membrane swept during my third pregnancy, I started spotting immediately. (This is a fairly common side effect.) I put on a panty liner when I got home and experienced mild, periodic cramping throughout that afternoon. By the time evening rolled around, actual contractions started. My husband and I headed to the hospital around 10:30 that night, and our third child was born about five hours later.

Since the membrane sweep worked so well with baby number three, I requested another during my fourth pregnancy. There was some initial spotting that time, after my OB did the sweep – but that’s it. I never even felt any cramping at all that day. This time, the sweep didn't work. I was bummed, for sure, because I was so ready to be done with that pregnancy and meet my baby. I was also hoping to avoid induction. But alas, I showed up at the hospital for my scheduled induction a few days later.

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Even though my doctor gave me a heads-up that there's only a 50/50 chance that membrane sweep will jump-start labor, I had myself convinced that I would be having a baby within the next day. It was frustrating.

Nevertheless, I’d probably ask for a membrane sweep again if I were to have another child. Because from experience, heading into the hospital at 6 centimeters dilated with contractions two minutes apart and then giving birth three hours later without needing an induction is infinitely preferable to walking into a scheduled induction at less than 3 centimeters dilated with zero contractions and giving birth 19 hours later. But maybe that’s just me."

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ACOG. 2017. Labor induction. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. a new window [Accessed June 2023]

Liu, J., Song, G., Meng, T. et al. Membrane sweeping added to formal induction method to increase the spontaneous vaginal delivery: a meta-analysis. Arch Gynecol Obstet 297, 623–630 (2018). a new window [Accessed June 2023]

Putnam, Kathleen et al. 2011. Randomized clinical trial evaluating the frequency of membrane sweeping with an unfavorable cervix at 39 weeks. Int J Womens Health. 2011; 3: 287–294. a new window [Accessed June 2023]

Zamzami, Tarik Y. et al. 2014. The Efficacy of Membrane Sweeping at Term and Effect on the Duration of Pregnancy: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Clin Gynecol Obstet. 2014;3(1):30-34. a new window [Accessed June 2023]

Kate Marple
Kate Marple is a writer and editor who specializes in health, pregnancy, and parenting content. She's passionate about translating complicated medical information into helpful pregnancy and parenting advice that's easy to understand. She lives in San Francisco with her family.