Can A Cervical Check Induce Labor?
They sound scarier than they are.
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 without understanding why and when certain procedures are performed or their inherent risks or benefits. On the long list of exams, tests, and interventions involved in pregnancy there are cervical checks. Before you consent to one, it’s your right to know whether a cervical check can induce labor and what’s involved — risks, as well as benefits.
What happens during a cervical exam?
“Cervical dilation checks are a really critical part of labor,” Greg Marchand, M.D., OB-GYN, FACOG, FACS, tells Romper.
“They track progress and ultimately can be used to decide whether your baby is going to come out vaginally or if you need a cesarean section,” he adds. “Prior to labor, they aren't particularly useful, except if you're trying to find out if a patient who is contracting is in labor or not.”
Near the end of pregnancy, about 35 to 37 weeks, most women will receive a cervical exam. The health care provider uses a gloved hand to insert two fingers into the vagina to the cervix to feel for thinning, opening, and to determine the position of the cervix.
Can a cervical exam start labor?
"A cervical exam in and of itself will not induce labor," board-certified OB-GYN Sheila Chhutani, M.D., of Dallas, Texas, tells Romper.
“In a normal cervical exam at 36 to 42 weeks, a non-aggressive exam will not put a patient in labor,” veteran OB-GYN Elizabeth Sauter, M.D., FACOG, of Westport, Connecticut, agrees, telling Romper that every patient is an individual, so there is no clear black-and-white answer. However, she explains, if the cervix is ripe (dilated, effaced, or soft), it could stimulate the release of prostaglandins which are actually used to induce labor.
"During an exam, a practitioner can 'sweep the membranes' which means using their fingers during an exam to separate the amniotic bag of water from the uterine wall,” she adds. This can then jumpstart the release of hormones that bring on labor, reported The Journal of Clinical Gynecology and Obstetrics.
Are cervical exams risky?
“As they are necessary to properly track labor, I wouldn't say there are any "risks," but you should limit the number of checks if you can,” says Marchand. “Every time you perform a cervical check you're putting your hand through the vagina to touch the cervix, and as the vagina has bacteria and the uterus (which the cervix is a part of) is sterile, the more checks you do the more quickly infection can happen in the uterus. This usually isn't a problem, and it will occur naturally whether or not you check the cervix, but more frequent checks will certainly speed up the process of the uterus becoming infected.”
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. Cervical checks are after all an intervention, so the most important thing is that your provider discusses the purpose of the procedure for your individual situation as well as the risks.
Hutchison, J., Mahdy, H., Hutchison, J. (2020). Stages of Labor. StatPearls, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31335010/
Zamzami, T., Al Senani, N. (2014) The Efficacy of Membrane Sweeping at Term and Effect on the Duration of Pregnancy: A Randomized Controlled Trial. The Journal of Clinical Gynecology and Obstetrics, https://www.jcgo.org/index.php/jcgo/article/view/225
Elizabeth Sauter, M.D., FACOG, OB-GYN in Westport, Connecticut
Sheila Chhutani, M.D., board-certified OB-GYN in Dallas, Texas
Greg Marchand M.D., OB-GYN, FACOG, FACS, accredited master surgeon/board-certified in MIGS, founder, Marchand Institute
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