What you need to know before your membrane sweep

The stretch and sweep, or membrane sweep, done late in pregnancy can help you go into labour sooner. Here’s what you’ll want to know before you get it done.

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When you’re so pregnant and uncomfortable you can barely roll over in bed, you may not know what to think when your doctor or midwife suggests an even more uncomfortable procedure to hurry up labour. Is a stretch and sweep worth it? We spoke with obstetricians and midwives about what happens, why it’s done and how you’ll feel both during and after. (The great news: It’s not as bad as you might think.)

How does a stretch and sweep work?

Also referred to as a membrane sweep, membrane stripping or simply a sweep, this technique involves gently lifting the amniotic sac—or fetal membrane—from the cervix and lower uterus. Late in pregnancy, a doctor or midwife inserts a gloved finger through the cervical canal and uses a sweeping motion to separate the membrane from the cervix. This “sweep,” releases prostaglandins, chemicals that help to soften and open the cervix for delivery. “The hope is to accelerate that onset of labour by the increase of prostaglandins,” explains Regina-based obstetrician George Carson.

To further stimulate labour is the “stretch” of a stretch-and-sweep, which refers to gently widening the inner cervix. Alix Bacon, a registered midwife in Ladner, BC, says while one finger is required for a membrane sweep, a stretch needs two fingers to fit through the cervix in order to “literally stretch those fingers apart.” But if your cervix isn’t ready to be widened, she strongly reassures this part of the procedure won’t be done.

Why do you get a membrane sweep?

The main purpose of a stretch and sweep is to reduce the need for a medical induction after the due date, says Hamilton, Ont., obstetrician Dustin Costescu. “Because it causes a natural release of chemicals, it is less risky than medications used for induction such as oxytocin or prostaglandin gels,” he explains. He says some women even request a stretch and sweep to help move things along, and that it’s a completely optional procedure—even if your caregiver suggests it.

You may go into active labour within a few hours, a few days, or not at all—it depends on how ready your body is. “One sweep might not do anything, but if you have a sweep at weeks 38, 39 and 40, it’s the cumulative effect of those sweeps,” says Bacon.

Is a stretch and sweep safe?

A stretch and sweep is not an induction; rather, it’s an equipment-free, drug-free way to coax someone already in late pregnancy into spontaneous labour.

It’s a safe procedure, but Costescu says in very rare cases your water will break inadvertently. “While messy, this is not generally harmful,” he says. As with any time in your pregnancy, if there is leaking fluid or heavy bleeding afterwards, call your healthcare provider.

When can you get a membrane sweep?

A woman cuddles her babyWas your labour a letdown? It’s only offered at 38 weeks or later, and in order to do a sweep, the cervix must already be partially opened, explains registered midwife Kim Campbell of Vancouver. If your body isn’t readying itself for labour, she says the cervix will be out of reach and firmly closed, so the sweep can’t (and won’t) be done. “If this happens the care provider normally just massages the cervix and there is no contact possible with the membranes,” she says. This will help stimulate the area and hopefully soften the cervix.

Is a stretch and sweep painful?

It depends—Campbell says some of her patients describe a stretch and sweep as uncomfortable, while others call it painful. “Any pain is short-lived, and when the procedure is done, there is no residual pain,” she offers. The whole procedure is over in about a minute or less, and you’ll be fine to drive home afterwards. Later that day, you may have period-like cramps along with some light spotting, which is all normal.

It’s important to know you’re in control at all times, which can help you feel more confident before your appointment. “Consent can be removed at any time,” says Bacon, adding that, if midway you decide it’s not for you, just tell your healthcare provider to stop.

Read more:
4 tips to manage labour and delivery fears
Late pregnancy aches and pains

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