The amniotic sac or “bag of waters” is a double membrane in which a fetus develops within the uterus. The amniotic sac is fluid filled and helps keep the fetus safe from injury during pregnancy and allows room for movement. The amniotic sac is what ruptures when you hear someone say that their “water broke”.
Towards the end of a pregnancy or around the 40th week of gestation, some health care providers may suggest “stripping membranes” or “sweeping membranes”. Stripping or sweeping the membranes is a technique used to try to stimulate labor. Some research suggests that stripping membranes stimulates the release of prostaglandin hormones which may soften the cervix to prepare it for labor.
What happens when your doctor or midwife strips your membranes?
Stripping membranes is a relatively simple procedure that can be performed in the doctor’s office and is usually performed during a routine exam. The doctor or midwife places their fingers into the opening of the cervix and attempts to gently separate the amniotic sac from the uterus.
Stripping membranes can become uncomfortable for the woman, causing abdominal cramping and possibly some spotting. The abdominal cramping can stimulate labor contractions.
The frequency of membrane stripping varies by individual case and by doctor. Some women only have their membranes stripped once and others may have their membranes stripped several times. Some doctors choose to avoid membrane stripping all together.
Does stripping membranes work to bring on labor?
Having your membranes stripped is no guarantee that labor will begin. There is only theory that this may work. Membrane stripping is usually only done at the very end of a pregnancy because the theory also is that the body has to be ready for labor.
Membrane stripping risks
Membrane stripping comes with the risk of rupturing the amniotic sac. If the amniotic sac ruptures, the woman, if planning on having a hospital birth, will more than likely have to go to the hospital immediately.
Some women should not have their membranes stripped. These include:
- A woman who has an infection called Group B Strep. Although some research suggests otherwise, women who have GBS infection are cautioned not to have their membranes stripped as the possibility for spreading the infection.
- A woman who is cautioned not to deliver vaginally
- A woman who has placenta abnormalities
Anyone having questions in regards to stripping membranes should discuss them with their doctor. Women should be allowed to give informed consent to this procedure.
Again, it’s important to remember that stripping membranes can potentially be very painful and leave a woman very uncomfortable. It’s also no promise that it will be successful at jump starting labor.