5 Signs Your Water Is Breaking During Pregnancy

What does it feel like when your water breaks, and what does it look like? The experience is different for every pregnant person, but these signs indicate that your amniotic sac has ruptured.

By Nicole Harris

As your due date approaches, worrying about your water breaking can basically become a full-time job. You might imagine yourself dripping wet, panicking, screaming, and Lamaze breathing as you white-knuckle it to the hospital. Thankfully, though, when you’re water breaks, it’s likely not going to look anything like it’s portrayed in Hollywood.

“Water breaking is usually a lot less dramatic than people think,” explains Joyce Gottesfeld, M.D., OB-GYN for Kaiser Permanente in Denver. Some people experience the telltale gush of fluid, while others have nothing more than a slow trickle that resembles leaking urine. So how do you know if your water broke, and what should you do after? We spoke with experts to learn more about this sign of approaching labor.

Why Does Your Water Break?

To better understand water breaking signs, it helps to know why your water breaks in the first place. “During a pregnancy, the baby grows within a person’s uterus and is contained within a sac filled with amniotic fluid,” explains Ilana Ressler, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist with Illume Fertility in Norwalk, Connecticut. This amniotic fluid cushions your baby, regulates the temperature of the womb, and helps with fetal development.

At some point prior to delivery, the amniotic sac membranes will rupture and the fluid will come out of the vagina. This “rupture of the membranes,” as it’s technically called, is commonly referred to as your “water breaking.”

Despite common misconceptions, only about 15% to 20% of people experience their water breaking before going into labor, says Ashley Brichter, certified cooperative childbirth educator, birth and postpartum doula, and founder and CEO of Birth Smarter, a company that offers in-person and virtual childbirth classes for expectant parents.

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The amniotic sac usually ruptures during labor or delivery. In extremely rare cases, however, the amniotic sac might never rupture, and the baby can be born inside of it (which is referred to as being born “en caul”).

How to Tell If Your Water Broke

Given the wide range of experiences when it comes to a person’s water breaking during pregnancy, it can be difficult for some to feel confident that they’ll know when their water has broken. Here are the biggest signs that what you’re experiencing is, in fact, your water breaking.

Sign #1: The leaking is uncontrollable

When your water breaks, you may feel a gush of amniotic fluid, or you might only notice a slow trickle. The amount depends on whether you have a tear or gross rupture. “If the amniotic sac is rupturing below the baby’s head, then fluid has built up and will gush out,” says Brichter. “But if the rupture happens higher in the womb, the fluid will have to trickle down between the sac and uterine lining, so the flow won’t be as heavy.”

In all cases, though, the flow of liquid can’t be controlled, and you can expect a total of about 2 1/2 to 3 cups of fluid to eventually empty out of the amniotic sac. You can reduce any mess and wetness by wearing a panty liner or sanitary pad (never a tampon) or sitting on a clean towel.

Sign #2: It’s mostly clear and odorless

In general, amniotic fluid is odorless, although some people detect a sweet smell like semen or chlorine. It’s also usually clear or lightly tinged pink with streaks of blood.

Sign #3: You feel painless pressure or popping

Some people detect pressure when their water breaks. Others hear a popping noise followed by leakage. Neither situation is painful, says Dr. Ressler. “However, contractions may increase in frequency and intensity after the water breaks.”

Sign #4: It might feel like leaking urine

Water breaking could feel like urinary incontinence, which is common during the third trimester of pregnancy. “People will sometimes say, ‘I went to the bathroom in my pants but the water kept coming,'” says Dr. Gottesfeld. Here’s how to tell the difference: Urine has a yellowish color and smells like ammonia, while amniotic fluid is usually odorless, says Brichter.

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If you still can’t tell whether it’s amniotic fluid or urine, try this trick from Brichter: Sit down for several minutes, then stand back up. If there’s still fluid trickling out, it probably indicates that your water broke.

Sign #5: It’s not sticky and thick like discharge

Pregnant people may also mistake rupturing of the membranes for discharge (which can increase in volume during pregnancy), especially if it’s trickling out slowly. While both amniotic fluid and vaginal discharge (leukorrhea) tend to be odorless, the latter is generally stickier, thicker, and may look like clear or milky white mucus. Amniotic fluid, on the other hand, is typically very thin and watery.

Also take care not to confuse water breaking with losing your mucus plug, which is another sign of approaching labor. The mucus plug looks like bigger chunks of gelatinous, thick, and yellowish-white liquid with a snotty consistency. It may also be tinged with blood.

What to Do When Your Water Breaks

If you’re experiencing signs of your water breaking, check in with your doctor or midwife. If contractions haven’t started or they are still infrequent and mild, they may encourage you to rest at home until your contractions progress, says Brichter. However, you’ll probably need to head to the hospital in the following circumstances:

  • Your water breaks before 37 weeks: If your water breaks before you’re considered full-term, which is known as premature rupture of the membranes (PROM), your provider may take steps to delay labor to give your baby more time to develop.
  • The amniotic fluid smells foul, looks greenish or brownish, or contains lots of blood: These qualities could indicate fetal distress, or that the baby has passed meconium (the first bowel movement), explains Brichter, in which case your provider will want to check in on your baby.
  • Contractions haven’t started within 24 hours of your water breaking: If significant time passes after the amniotic sac ruptures before a baby is delivered, there is a greater chance of developing an infection that can harm the baby, says Dr. Gottesfeld. If your water breaks but labor doesn’t start or fails to progress, your provider may give you intravenous (IV) antibiotics to prevent infection or recommend induction with Pitocin.
  • You’ve tested positive for group B Streptococcus (GBS): Pregnant people are generally tested for GBS between 36 and 37 of pregnancy, and if they are found to be a carrier, they will need treatment with antibiotics prior to birth. If you have group B strep, your provider may want to see you soon after your water breaks to start treatment and lower the risk of your baby being exposed during labor and delivery.
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