What Does it Mean to Have Your Membranes Stripped?

Membrane Stripping: What Does it Mean? What Does it Do? When is it Done? Does it Work?

Membrane stripping, also known as membrane sweeping or a "stretch and sweep," is a simple procedure performed during a routine doctor appointment on pregnant women who have gone past 40 weeks gestation. Quick, medication-free and usually painless, it can trigger the release of hormones that can cause the body to go into labor. But there's no guarantee that it will hurry things along. Some doctors consider it such a routine part of a post-term appointment that they don't even mention to their patient that they will be performing it. A pregnant woman who prefers not having it done should mention this to her doctor.

What Does Membrane Stripping Mean?

The pregnant woman who has an examination

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Membrane stripping is a simple, quick procedure performed by a doctor during a routine pelvic exam during a late-pregnancy checkup. Your doctor inserts a gloved finger into your vagina, all the way up to the cervix (the opening of the uterus) and gently pushes the finger between the bag of water known as the amniotic sac and the cervix. Some women report that the procedure is painful; others find it only slightly uncomfortable. You'll generally be more comfortable during a membrane stripping if you relax. The procedure can be performed more than once, at separate appointments, if necessary.

What Does Membrane Stripping Do?

The separation of the amniotic sac from the cervix triggers the release of prostaglandins, hormone-like compounds that soften the cervix and sometimes cause the cervix to open and the uterus to contract. Membrane stripping does not usually make labor start immediately, and not necessarily at all. You can expect to have cramps and/or contractions for up to 24 hours after the procedure. Some women experience light spotting for a few days after having it done. If you experience bleeding, call your doctor immediately.

Ideally, contractions triggered by membrane stripping will bring about actual labor, but the procedure sometimes causes non-productive contractions that make you uncomfortable without progressing labor. This can be confusing and frustrating and is a significant downside of membrane stripping. There's also a small risk of membrane stripping causing your water to break, which can lead to a more urgent induction if labor doesn't start on its own.

When is Membrane Stripping Done?

The pregnant woman who has an examination

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Membrane stripping is generally considered an option between medical induction and waiting for labor to begin on its own. Most doctors will insist upon a medical induction for all pregnancies that reach 42 weeks gestation. Membrane stripping is used to prevent an expectant mother from getting to that point. So, it's usually done when the mother or the doctor wants to kick-start the labor, but when there's no real urgency to medically induce. Membrane stripping can be performed only if the cervix is at least 1 centimeter dilated.

Does Membrane Stripping Work?

Some studies show that a pregnant woman has a greater chance of going into labor soon after membrane stripping than she would if the procedure hadn't been done. This is especially true if she's at or past the 41-week mark. In fact, when performed after 41 weeks, membrane stripping cuts in half the likelihood of reaching 42 weeks. Membrane stripping has also been shown to cut the total length of a pregnancy by an average of four days. Overall, membrane stripping is more effective the further along a woman is into her pregnancy. The procedure also comes with no increased risk of needing an emergency cesarean or having other complications during labor and delivery.

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