What A Doula Wants You To Know About Having Your Membranes Stripped

At 39 weeks into my first pregnancy, I was waiting for contractions to begin any day. Through my birthing classes, I had learned that, contrary to what movies like to portray, a woman's water breaking is very rarely how labor starts — imagine my surprise when I woke up at 4:00 a.m. to exactly that. Five hours and still no contractions later, my midwife recommended stripping my membranes to get labor going. At this part of the story, everyone asks me, "Does having your membranes stripped hurt?" To which I say yeow.

Membrane stripping, or alternatively called sweeping, is where the practitioner inserts their finger into the opening of the cervix and sweeps around inside to separate the membrane around your baby from the lower part of your uterus, according to Evidence Based Birth. If it sounds uncomfortable, that's because it is. But it's been known to kick labor into gear, though there are no guarantees it will definitely work.

In fact, the practice of membrane stripping has its fair share of naysayers. "In my experience, many women find that having their membranes stripped is uncomfortable," doula trainer Dr. Amy Gilliland tells Romper in an exclusive interview. "The sensations can vary from sharp sudden discomfort to vague cramping that continues for several hours. Some women feel nauseous. According to our best research evidence, stripping the membranes has not been shown to be effective in starting labor, especially before 40 weeks gestation."

Yet Gilliland's biggest concern is not patient discomfort, but the possibility of introducing infection. She says, "Research shows that the more often a woman has vaginal exams in late pregnancy, the more likely her infant is to suffer from an infection that will require NICU treatment. However, many healthcare providers still offer to strip membranes because it makes the patient and the physician feel they are doing something to help labor to begin."

The safety of the procedure might depend on whether anything has already started happening. In my case, with broken water, the possibility for infection was already introduced, so a membrane sweeping (coupled with breast pumping) seemed like a reasonable course of action — and indeed, labor began shortly after.

Grace Patton, mommy blogger in residence at the popular Camp Patton, recently recounted having her membranes swept when contractions were slow and unproductive in the birth story of her son Abraham. Speaking with Romper, Patton says, "Yes, it hurts! But not so much that it would deter me from doing it again. I was so miserably huge that I was willing to do (almost) anything to get the baby party started."

Does having your membranes swept hurt? The general consensus is yes, but that it's worth it when used appropriately. The quick procedure might not be right for you or your circumstances, so do your research about the risk of infection and talk it over with your healthcare provider. And remember, you always have the right to give or withhold consent. (Or to yelp or not yelp.)