The frustrating truth of pregnancy is that despite millions of babies being born yearly, there's a veil over the common practices of labor and delivery. Most of us go into pregnancy not understanding why and when certain procedures are performed, or their inherent risks and benefits. We are increasingly reliant upon the unsubstantiated claims of friends and forums, and when it comes to pregnancy, a little science can soothe a lot of fears. One of the most common myths is that vaginal exams bring on contractions and labor, but really, can a cervical check induce labor?
Strangely enough, while it is reasonable to think that a routine physical examination completed in the end of pregnancy would be safe as houses, that might not exactly be the case. Veteran OB-GYN Elizabeth Sauter, M.D., FACOG of Westport, Connecticut, tells Romper that "every patient is an individual, so there is no black and white," but that "in a normal cervical exam at 36 to 42 weeks, a non-aggressive exam will not put a patient in labor. However, if the cervix is 'ripe,' i.e. dilated, effaced, or soft, it could stimulate the release of prostaglandins which are actually used to induce labor." The Mayo Clinic agrees with this sentiment, and noted that any type of labor induction is only effective if a pregnant person's cervix is "ready" and ripe for labor.
If you talk to moms, you'll find there are really two camps: one is the camp of "a day after my last vaginal exam, poof — I went into labor," and the other is the camp of "you could drive the truck from Mad Max: Fury Road through my vagina, and that baby would stick." I am in the former camp. My son was born a scant two days after my last vaginal exam. During that exam, I learned I wasn't effaced at all. I was maybe 1 centimeter dilated, and he was high up in my abdomen. Extremely high — unending reflux-feels-like-a-foot-in-my-throat high. But because my anemia was so bad, and my Braxton Hicks were so bad, I was going to the OB-GYN a few times per week at that point. That last week, I had three pelvic exams.
And I'm not complaining. I was beyond miserable, and if having my OB-GYN's hand in my vagina so frequently meant going into labor? I would've lived on that impersonal table in Manhattan, legs akimbo. But can a cervical check induce labor on someone like me, whose cervix was so high and tight?
According to Board Certified OB-GYN Sheila Chhutani, M.D., of Dallas, Texas, it's not usually the case, but it can happen. She tells Romper, "A cervical exam in and of itself will not induce labor," but she notes that there are strategies that doctors can employ to help things along. "During an exam, a practitioner can 'sweep the membranes' which means using their fingers during an exam to separate the amnion (bag of water) from the uterine wall," Chhutani says. This can then jumpstart the release of hormones that bring on labor, reported The Journal of Clinical Gynecology and Obstetrics.
It also hurts like heck. When I went in to be induced with my daughter, this was the first thing my OB-GYN did to get things started. I didn't love it, but it worked. According to Chhutani, it doesn't always though. "During an aggressive exam, the bag of water can accidentally be broken and thereby [incite] labor. This happens rarely without the aid of a device to break the water, unless the practitioner is actively trying to on exam."
The bottom line is that whether or not a cervical exam will induce labor is highly dependent upon the mother and the practitioner, but it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility. If you're overdue and your OB-GYN wants to do a check, just think positive thoughts.
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