I was asked in the comments how often I do a VE (Vaginal Exam) and since I have a lot of thoughts about this topic, I thought I would just make a post.
I don't like to do VEs. Women don't like to have them done. How often do I do them? When there seems to be a clinical need for one, or we need the information to make a care decision. I also will do them reluctantly if begged by the woman, after I've tried to talk her out of it.
Prenatal vaginal exams are largely useless when done routinely. They are uncomfortable and give misleading information. Moms can be 4 cm and still walk around for 10 days like that. Or they can have a long, closed cervix and have their baby 7 hours later. I have actually heard of women whose doctors told them if they hadn't made "progress" in dilation from one prenatal visit to the next that they would need a cesarean!
The amount of dilation also is not related in any way I've ever seen with how long labor lasts. Faerylady was 5 cm for two weeks before her fifth child was born and she labored for 15 hours to get to 10 cm. I was only 3 cm. 30 minutes before my third child was born.
Many doctors and some midwives will do VEs at the end of pregnancy so they can "rough the cervix up" or "get things going", often without consent or even the woman's knowledge. The mom just knows that the VE is very painful, and she has lots of contractions and maybe some bloody show when she leaves the office. But many times labor doesn't commence. This can lead to trips to the hospital when the mom thinks she's going to have her baby.
I think this is a bad idea for a few reasons, the biggest of which is that the mucus plug has bactericidal properties and protects mother and baby to some degree against infection. Doing a VE, especially a rough stretch and sweep VE, disturbs and removes much of this protective plug. Stripping the membranes is contraindicated in women with Group B Strep. Some women decline testing, and we dont' know their GBS status.
What are some reasons I would do an exam prenatally? I would do a VE if I couldn't tell what the presenting part is. I would do a very gentle VE if I had a mom having a lot of preterm contractions. I would do a long, slow stretch (usually takes about 20 minutes) if I had a mom that was very overdue and we knew she was GBS negative. And I would do one at the mother's request, but with informed consent about the limitations of the information.
Like any intervention/test/procedure, the question needs to be asked "What are you going to do with the information." If it won't affect the care of mother or baby, and there is no change that can/should be made, and if the information can be misleading, why do it?
As far as labor: I still rarely do them. On first timers, I do like to do a VE on arrival at their house. VBACs also. For the primes, it is because they can look like they are in the throes of transition, and be a tight, posterior 1 cm. For VBACs it is because I don't play with obstructed labor and a scarred uterus. If a VBAC isn't making good dilation progress in the face of strong regular contractions, we transport. I still only check every few hours though.
There are lots of moms I have served who I have never checked at all. Many women I can tell where they are in labor with external means -- emotional signposts, the "red line thermometer" between their butt cheeks, the tone of their voices, the quality and intensity of the contractions. Often during pushing, I will tell the moms to reach in and tell me where their baby is and if they are making progress or not. If they are unsure, I will offer to check. As long as they note progress and the heart tones are good, I keep my hands to myself. If we had low heart tones, I get more aggressive with coaching pushing of course.
When else would I check in labor? Again at maternal request. Or if she seems to be complete, but is getting discouraged and/or wanting to push but afraid to. I check any time I hear a problem with heart tones to determine if birth is imminent. And I check if it's been several hours with no discernable external signs of progress.
I always, always ask. The mom can always say no. And I've had so many women remark with suprise, "That didn't even hurt!" It's not supposed to.