What is a membrane sweep?

A membrane sweep is a quick procedure, which may help to bring on labour if you’re past your due date. Your midwife or doctor will sweep their finger around your cervix to try to kickstart your labour.

Labour usually starts between 38 weeks and 42 weeks of pregnancy. That’s why, at your 38-week antenatal visit, your midwife or doctor will talk to you about what to expect if your baby becomes overdue. This may be the first time you hear the terms ‘membrane sweep’, ‘stretch and sweep’ or ‘cervical sweep’. 

You may be offered more than one membrane sweep to help bring on labour. 

What happens during a membrane sweep?

Your doctor or midwife will gently insert their gloved finger into the vagina and sweep around the neck of your womb (the cervix). The aim is to part the membranes of the amniotic sac that surrounds your baby from the cervix itself. It may feel bit like an internal examination. 

This can cause your body to release hormones called prostaglandins. These hormones can help to kickstart labour by softening and ripening the cervix and stimulating contractions to start.

If your cervix is closed, and your midwife or doctor cannot do the sweep, they may massage the cervix instead.  

Will a membrane sweep hurt?

It only takes a few minutes, but a membrane sweep can feel unpleasant. Some people find it painful. You may feel some cramping and discomfort. Afterwards, you may have more cramping and some light bleeding.    

It may be worth knowing that although some people find the procedure uncomfortable, most would recommend it as an effective, drug-free way to get labour started.

When will I be offered a membrane sweep?

Your midwife or doctor will offer you a membrane sweep at your antenatal visits after 39 weeks. They’ll also ask if you would like more membrane sweeps if the first one does not get your labour started. 

How effective is a membrane sweep?

Studies that involved thousands of people have shown that a membrane sweep is an effective way of getting labour started. It could reduce the need for more formal methods of induction, such as pessaries or hormone drips.

The time it takes for a membrane sweep to work varies, but the aim is to get labour started within 48 hours of the sweep.

Do I have to have a membrane sweep?

Your doctor or midwife will ask for your consent before a membrane sweep. You do not have to agree. If you decide against it, they will respect your wishes and give you other options to get labour started.

There are other things you could try to bring on labour yourself, such as having sex, or nipple stimulation. However, bear in mind that there is not as much science to support these methods. 

If you do not go into labour by 42 weeks your midwife or doctor will offer you an induction. You may even be offered one sooner than this if your doctor thinks it would be safer for your baby to be born without further delay.

Find out more about induced labour.

American College of Nurse-Midwives (2018) Membrane sweeping. Journal of Midwifery & Women's Health 2018 August https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jmwh.12894

Finucane EM, Murphy EM, et al (2020). Membrane sweeping for induction of labour. Cochrane Database Systematic Review. 2020 Feb 27. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000451.pub3

NHS. Inducing labour. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/labour-and-birth/signs-of-labour/inducing-labour/ (Page last reviewed: 1 November 2023. Next review due: 1 November 2026)

NHS.You and your baby at 38 weeks pregnant. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/week-by-week/28-to-40-plus/38-weeks/ (Page last reviewed: 13 October 2021. Next review due: 13 October 2024) Accessed: 28 March 2023

NICE (2021). Inducing labour: NICE clinical guideline 207. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng207/chapter/Recommendations 

Review dates
Reviewed: 07 February 2024
Next review: 07 February 2027