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
July 28, 2020
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As your due date approaches, worrying about your water breaking can basically become a full-time job. You might imagine yourself 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 women 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 afterwards? We spoke with experts to learn more about this sign of approaching labor.

Why Does Your Water Break?

To understand water breaking signs, it helps to know why it happens in the first place. “During a pregnancy, the baby grows within a woman’s uterus and is contained within a sac filled with amniotic fluid,” explains Ilana Ressler, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist with RMA of 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 percent of women experience their water breaking before going into labor, says Ashley Brichter, founder and CEO of Birth Smarter, which offers in-person and virtual childbirth classes for expectant parents. It usually happens during labor or delivery. In extremely rare cases, the amniotic sac might never rupture, and the baby can be born inside of it (called "en caul").

That said, here are the biggest signs that what you're experiencing is, in fact, your water breaking.

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Sign #1: The Leaking is Uncontrollable

When her water breaks, a woman may feel a gush of amniotic fluid, or she 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 about 2 1/2 to 3 cups of fluid to empty out of the amniotic sac. You can prevent messes 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 women detect a sweet smell like semen or chlorine. It's also usually clear or tinged pink with streaks of blood.

Sign #3: You Feel Painless Pressure or Popping

Some women 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. “Women 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.

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 women may also mistake rupturing of the membranes for discharge, especially if it’s trickling out slowly. While both amniotic fluid and vaginal discharge (leukorrhea) tend to be odorless, the latter is sticky, thick, and looks like clear or milky white mucus. 

Also take care not to confuse water breaking with losing your mucus plug, which is a sign of 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 water breaking signs, check in with your doctor or midwife. They may encourage you to rest at home until 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 you experience this premature rupture of the membranes, your practitioner may take steps to delay labor.
  • The amniotic fluid smells foul, looks greenish or brownish, or contains lots of blood. This could indicate fetal distress, or that the baby has passed meconium (the first bowel movement), explains Brichter. 
  • Contractions haven’t started within 24 hours of your water breaking, which may necessitate evaluation or induction with Pitocin. If you wait too long to deliver the baby, you could develop an infection that harms the baby, says Dr. Gottesfeld. The doctor may give you intravenous antibiotics to prevent this from happening.
  • You’ve tested positive for GBS Group B Streptococcus. Women generally get the test between 36 and 37 of pregnancy. 

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