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Membrane or cervical sweep - what's it all about?

You might be forgiven for thinking a membrane sweep sounds like some sort of medieval practice involving a wooden-handled brush. But put that picture straight out of your mind as nothing could be further from the truth - a sweep doesn't involve any kind of instrument whatsoever, let alone a broom. Here's what really goes on when you have a cervical sweep.

What is a sweep or stretch and sweep?

It’s when a midwife tries to separate the membranes of the amniotic sac from the cervix, which causes the body to release the hormones (prostaglandins) that kick off labour, thin the cervix and encourage your baby to be born.

Why would I need one?

If your baby’s overdue and there’s no sign of you going into labour, your midwife might suggest a sweep. It’s a natural way to try and get labour going, before they start thinking about whether you might need to be induced, which involves artificial hormones.

What does it actually involve?

It’s essentially a vaginal examination that involves the midwife using her fingers internally to ‘sweep’ around the edge of the membranes and it’s over in a matter of seconds. If the midwife can’t reach the amniotic sac, they may be able to stretch and massage the cervix, ripening or softening it so they can successfully do the procedure a few days later to try and stimulate labour.

Will it hurt?

Unfortunately it’s a case of grin and bear it! Many women find the procedure uncomfortable, but not especially painful. It helps to keep in mind the purpose of the sweep. If you’re overdue, you’re likely to feel pretty fed up about being pregnant and keen to meet your baby, so hang on to that thought while it’s being done.

How will I know if it's worked?

If you start to feel period-like pains within 48 hours of the sweep, then it’s likely that it’s worked and labour is starting. If nothing happens during that time, then you can have another one the next time you visit your midwife. It’s usual to have up to three sweeps and then an induction will be discussed.

Any advice?

It’s a good idea to wear a sanitary towel just in case. You might bleed a little and it’s best to be prepared, but in most cases it’s at least a few hours until anything starts happening if it’s going to! And just in case you were worrying about it, it’s rare for your waters to break during a sweep. Other than that, good luck, we hope it works for you! 

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