Can a Membrane Sweep Actually Induce Labor?

Woman delivering a child in the hospital with a man holding her hand

KidStock / Getty Images

You are nearing the end of your pregnancy and are more than ready to stop being pregnant and finally meet your baby. Or perhaps you are past your due date, and your healthcare provider is suggesting some labor induction methods. Whatever the case, you might be wondering if a method like a membrane sweep would be a good option for you.

Let’s take a look at what membrane sweeps are, how they are performed, what they feel like, and what to expect after you have a membrane sweep done.

What Is a Membrane Sweep?

A membrane sweep is commonly done for pregnant individuals who are past their due dates, or at least 39 weeks pregnant. Unlike other methods of labor induction, a membrane sweep doesn’t involve medication and can be done during a routine office visit. Often, a membrane sweep is done to gently get labor started, especially when you want to avoid more invasive or formal induction methods.

Membrane sweeps are commonly done by physicians, midwives, or nurse practitioners, says James Miller, MD, an OB/GYN in Wooster, Ohio. “A membrane sweep is similar to a cervical exam but with the goal of the provider placing their finger in the cervical os (inside the cervix) and separating the inferior pole of the membranes (the bag of water where your baby lives) from the lower uterine segment with a sweeping circular motion,” Dr. Miller describes.

Because there are some minor risks associated with a membrane sweep, it should never be attempted at home and should only be performed by your healthcare provider, warns Monte Swarup, MD, FACOG, board-certified in OB/GYN and founder of HPD Rx “They are safe but there is a chance you will bleed or break your bag of water,” Dr. Swarup says.

Typically, membrane sweeps can only be done if your cervix has shown signs of dilation. If there is no dilation, your provider will not be able to perform the procedure. After the procedure is done, hormones called prostaglandins are released, which assist in softening your cervix and getting contractions started.

Membrane sweeps are not the same thing as getting your water broken—this is a different procedure called amniotomy. While getting a membrane sweep has the potential to break your waters, this is a rare occurrence and is not the goal of the procedure.

What Does a Membrane Sweep Actually Feel Like?

It’s one thing to hear a healthcare provider describe what happens during a membrane sweep, but it can be even more illuminating to hear what it’s really like from someone who experienced it. Chelsea Bagley, a mom of three from Central Texas, shared her experience with membrane sweeps.

Bagley was overdue with her last baby and was hoping to avoid more medicalized inductions. She had two membrane sweeps, and the second was successful in inducing labor. “After the first sweep, I had a few contractions within six hours of the procedure, but I didn't go into labor,” Bagley says. “I was in active labor and had my baby within 12 hours the second time (a week later).”

As for what the membrane sweeps felt like, Bagley describes it as an extra-uncomfortable cervical check or similar to a pap smear. “It is not a comfortable experience for the birthing person,” Bagley admits. “I wouldn't say it's painful, but it's not a great feeling.” If she were to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, she says she would give it an 8 for general discomfort and a 4 for pain.

Either way, Bagley is glad she had it done. She believes her second membrane sweep was what brought her into active labor. “I'd recommend it if you're trying to avoid a medical induction,” she offers.

Do Membrane Sweeps Work?

If you are strongly considering having a membrane sweep done, you may be wondering how successful it’s likely to be. The good news is that it’s often helpful, although it may take several tries, and may depend on a few factors.

“Membrane sweeping is an effective procedure, but it is dependent on the cervical exam before the procedure,” says Dr. Swarup. “The more favorable the cervix, the more effective.” Membrane sweeps often have to be done more than once—usually weekly during office visits—before they are effective, Dr. Swarup adds.

Still, studies show that membrane sweeps can have positive effects on labor induction. For example, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Gynecology & Obstetrics found that 90% of pregnant individuals who had a membrane sweep went into labor by 41 weeks, as compared to 75% who didn’t have the procedure done.

Risks of Membrane Sweeps

There aren’t any major risks to having a membrane sweep. “All individuals that are safe to have a vaginal delivery can have a membrane sweep at 38 weeks or beyond,” says Dr. Miller. People who should not have this procedure done include anyone whose babies are presenting as breech (feet down, instead of head down) or people who are experiencing placenta previa (when the placenta covers the cervix, Dr. Miller says.

Bleeding and cramping are some possible after-effects of a membrane sweep. In rare cases, membrane sweeps cause your water to break, which can make you more prone to infection if you don’t start going into labor soon after. Sometimes inducing labor can cause more intense contractions or changes to your baby’s heart rate.

Importantly, there are also risks to prolonging pregnancy past your due date, especially once you hit 41 or 42 weeks pregnant. Although many people delivering post-term do well, they are more likely to experience complications such as stillbirth, larger-than-normal birth weight, decreased amniotic fluid, and an increased chance of postpartum hemorrhaging.

What To Expect After a Membrane Sweep

It’s important to keep in mind that most people don’t go into labor directly after a membrane sweep. “Labor is not definitive after a membrane sweep and could start at any time or not at all,” says Dr. Swarup. Additionally, sometimes the membrane sweep has to be done several times before it makes a difference. You and your healthcare provider will decide the right number of membrane sweeps, and the best way to time them.

Some light bleeding and cramping can be normal after a membrane sweep. That doesn’t mean that you are in labor though, says Dr. Swarup. “The signs of labor are painful contractions that are consistent and at least every 10 minutes and last at least one hour,” he notes.

As for when to call your healthcare provider after a membrane sweep, you should contact them as soon as you notice regular contractions, as Dr. Swarup describes. Other signs that may necessitate a call to your healthcare provider include bleeding, leaking water, or if you notice that your baby seems to be moving less, Dr. Swarup advises.

A Word From Verywell

Many people use membrane sweeps to induce labor, and it’s a procedure often recommended and utilized by OB/GYNs and midwives. Generally, it’s a low-risk procedure, and can be effective. Still, all of us are different, and although the procedure may be recommended for most birthing people, it’s important to discuss the benefits and risks thoroughly with your provider before moving forward.

6 Sources
Verywell Family 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. Cleveland Clinic. Membrane Sweep.

  2. Avdiyovski H, Haith-Cooper M, Scally A. Membrane sweeping at term to promote spontaneous labour and reduce the likelihood of a formal induction of labour for postmaturity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Obstet Gynaecol. 2019;39(1):54-62. doi:10.1080/01443615.2018.1467388

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

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

  5. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Labor inductions.

  6. Zamzami. The efficacy of membrane sweeping at term and effect on the duration of pregnancy: a randomized controlled trial. J Clin Gynecol Obstet. Published online 2014. doi:10.14740/jcgo225w

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.

Originally written by Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH
Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH is a professor, author, childbirth and postpartum educator, certified doula, and lactation counselor.
Learn about our editorial process