I was pregnant with my son during one of the hottest summers on record. By the time the end of my third trimester rolled around, I was so swollen I could barely turn over in bed.
If only they would strip my membranes to induce labor, I reasoned, I could be out of my misery and meet my baby boy sooner.
Here’s a look at how effective membrane stripping is for inducing labor, plus the risks and benefits.
Stripping the membranes is a way to induce labor. It involves your doctor sweeping their (gloved) finger between the thin membranes of the amniotic sac in your uterus. It’s also known as a membrane sweep.
This motion helps separate the sac. It stimulates prostaglandins, compounds that act like hormones and can control certain processes in the body. One of these processes is — you guessed it — labor.
Your doctor may suggest trying a membrane stripping if:
- you’re near or past your due date
- there isn't a pressing medical reason to induce labor with a faster method
You don’t need to do anything to prepare for a membrane stripping. The procedure can be done in your doctor’s office.
You’ll simply hop up on the exam table like at a normal checkup. The best thing you can do during the procedure is simply breathe through it and try to relax. Membrane stripping doesn’t take long. The entire procedure will be over in a few minutes.
Researchers on a study published in the Journal of Clinical Gynecology and Obstetrics (JCGO) didn’t find any increased risks for negative side effects in women undergoing membrane stripping.
The study concluded that membrane stripping is safe and that, in most cases, women will only need to have the procedure one time for it to work.
Experts still question whether or not membrane stripping is really effective. A 2011 review of available studies concluded that the efficacy depends on how far along in pregnancy a woman is, and whether or not she uses other induction methods. It’s most effective if she doesn’t.
The JCGO study reported that after a membrane sweep, 90 percent of women delivered by 41 weeks compared to women who didn’t receive the membrane sweep. Of these, only 75 percent delivered by 41 weeks’ gestation. The goal is to stimulate labor and safely deliver before the pregnancy is beyond 41 weeks, and membrane stripping may occur as early as 39 weeks.
Membrane stripping might be most effective for women who are past their due dates. One study found that membrane sweeping could increase the likelihood of spontaneous labor within 48 hours.
Membrane stripping isn’t as effective as other types of induction, such as using medications. It’s generally only used in situations when there really isn’t a pressing medical reason to induce.
Advice from a nurse educator This procedure does cause some discomfort and should only be done by an experienced doctor. You may experience bleeding and cramping for a few days following the procedure. But if it works, it could save you from having your labor induced with medication.
The bottom line is you’ll need to balance your discomfort with other adverse effects.
— Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI
To be honest, a membrane stripping isn’t a comfy experience. It can be uncomfortable to go through, and you may feel a bit sore afterward.
Your cervix is highly vascular, meaning it has a lot of blood vessels. You may also experience some light bleeding during and after the procedure, which is completely normal. However, if you’re experiencing a lot of bleeding or in a lot of pain, be sure to go to the hospital.
Membrane stripping is most effective if a woman:
- is over 40 weeks in their pregnancy
- doesn't use any other type of labor-inducing techniques
In those cases, the JCGO study found that women on average went into labor on their own about a week earlier than women who didn’t have their membranes swept.
If you’re reaching a stage in your pregnancy where you’re feeling miserable, talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of a membrane induction. Remember that unless there’s a medical concern, it’s usually best to let your pregnancy progress naturally.
But if you’re past your due date and you don’t have a high-risk pregnancy, a membrane stripping might be a very effective and safe way to help put you into labor naturally. And hey, it might be worth a shot, right?
Chaunie Brusie, BSN, is a registered nurse with experience in labor and delivery, critical care, and long-term care nursing. She lives in Michigan with her husband and four young children, and is the author of the book “Tiny Blue Lines.”