I was well into my third trimester before I started playing out worst-case labor scenarios. Thanks to my pal Google, I could speculate about everything from placenta previa to preterm labor. But more than anything, I fretted — repeatedly — about my water breaking at work.
At the time, I worked in an office in one of Manhattan's trendier buildings. Should my water burst Hollywood-style, I'd have to waddle through throngs of tourists and hipsters, leaving a trail of amniotic fluid in my wake. It was too much to think about.
But it was also a completely normal thing to freak out about, thanks to the movies, which make water breaking seem like a soaking-wet horror show — all panicking and screaming and Lamaze breathing as you white-knuckle it to the hospital. On top of that, everyone's experience is different, so there's no script you can expect to follow when the time comes.
To help ease your fears (even a little), here's everything you need to know about your water breaking:
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While he's gestating in your uterus, your baby is cushioned and protected by a bag full of amniotic fluid. When that bag ruptures (aka "water breaking"), a burst of clear fluid flows out of your cervix and vagina, followed by continuous leaking.
Short answer: Yes, but you may not need to reach for your hospital bag just yet. Labor could still be a day or two away, says Allison Hill, MD, co-author of The Mommy Docs' Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy and Birth. In an overwhelming majority of cases — some 80 percent — labor begins with contractions, then water breaking. In the other 20 percent, the water breaks first and is usually followed by labor pains within a few hours.
The sensation is different for everyone. For some, it's a slow trickle or a discharge feeling (you may think you've suddenly become incontinent!). For others, it's that Hollywood-style gush, like you just completely peed your pants. Still others hear a pop and feel pressure, then relief, once the bag breaks.
Though urine and discharge exit your body from the same general neighborhood, amniotic fluid is typically odorless, though some women say it smells sweet, like chlorine or semen. It's also usually clear or tinged with small streaks of blood.
RELATED: Vaginal Discharge During Pregnancy
This is the million-dollar question (and probably the one keeping you up at night!). How much comes out at first can vary from a small leak to an all-out gush, depending on whether you have a tear or a gross rupture, explains Yvonne Bohn, MD, co-author of The Mommy Docs' Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy and Birth. Once it starts flowing, the amniotic fluid will continue leaking until all 600-800 milliliters (or roughly 2 1/2-3 cups) of it empties out. In the meantime, you can wear a sanitary pad to protect your clothes or lay a clean towel underneath you to protect your seat.
A call to your ob-gyn is in order — she'll advise you on when and how quickly to come to the hospital. Among the factors she'll consider are:
How far along you are. If the bag breaks before 37 weeks, it's considered preterm premature rupture of the membranes (PPROM). Depending on how early this happens, your ob-gyn may try to delay labor to give your baby more time to mature.
Your contractions. It's true that first-time moms often take longer to deliver. But if regular contractions aren't happening within 24 hours of your water breaking, your ob-gyn may want to evaluate you and baby and possibly induce labor with pitocin.
How long it's been since the bag broke. If your baby hasn't arrived within 24 hours after your water broke, your doctor may give you antibiotics intravenously. That's because there's a chance an infection can travel into the uterus and cause an infection in the baby, says Dr. Hill.
As for what to avoid, it may depend on your doctor. "I allow women to get in a bath, but I know others who don't recommend it," Dr. Hill says. "I also recommend they not have intercourse, because that could introduce bacteria into the uterus."
If your water breaks and you're less than 37 weeks or you are GBS Group B Streptococcus positive, contact your ob-gyn — she may send you to the hospital. Also pay attention to the condition of the amniotic fluid. If it's foul smelling, stained with lots of blood or has a greenish or dark tint, head straight to hospital — those are all signs that your baby could be in distress.
Finally, take note of whether contractions have begun. If more than 24 hours have passed since your water broke and you're still not feeling them, call your doctor.