We’ve all seen it in the movies: Our very pregnant heroine suddenly drowns her designer shoes in a flood of amniotic fluid, and 12-hours later, out pops a baby! In reality, your water breaking may or may not be so dramatic and may or may not be an immediate sign of labor. Here’s what to expect when your water breaks (or doesn’t) and what to do next.

What Does it Mean When Your Water Breaks?

First, let’s define what we mean by “water”. About 12 days after conception, an amniotic sac forms inside your uterus to hold your growing baby. The amniotic fluid is very important as it offers cushioning protection, holds a steady temperature around the baby, and provides nutrients and antibodies. That’s some impressive “water”!  

When your baby is nearly ready to be born, the membranes of the amniotic sac will release the fluid, called ROM, or rupture of membranes. It can range from imperceptible dribbles to a flood like a popped water balloon.

What Causes Your Water to Break?

Though your water might break before your contractions begin (like in the movies), that only happens in about 15% of pregnancies. When ROM occurs, labor usually begins within 12 to 24 hours. If regular uterine contractions haven’t begun 24 hours after your water breaks, your practitioner will say you had PROM, or premature rupture of membranes.  They will likely recommend inducing labor to avoid the risk of infection traveling up into your uterus and hurting your baby.

Many women are surprised to learn that it’s much more likely for the water to break AFTER labor begins. In fact, it is often the squeezing force of the contractions that pops the membranes. So, if you’re worried about your water breaking suddenly when you’re out on the street, you can rest assured that most women get advanced warning in the form of strong contractions.

Sometimes, water breaks while you’re sleeping. If you’re concerned about flooding the bed, consider protecting your mattress with a waterproof cover.

What Does it Feel Like When Your Water Breaks—and What Happens When Your Water Breaks?

Did my water just break?! When the amniotic fluid passes through the cervix and vagina, there may be noticeable wetness, but it could be anywhere from a trickle to a gush. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether your water is breaking or if you’re simply leaking urine, vaginal discharge, or mucus (which are all not-so-glamorous side effects of pregnancy!). One way to tell is to stand up. If the flow of liquid increases when you stand, it’s probably your water breaking.

What Does Amniotic Fluid Look and Smell Like?

Another way to tell if your water broke is to observe the look and smell of the fluid. If it’s clear, pale yellow, or tinged with blood and smells slightly sweet, that’s amniotic fluid. Urine tends to be darker yellow and smells like ammonia. Your provider will not be able to diagnose water breaking over the phone but would be able to tell by testing the fluid, if needed.  

What Should You Do When Your Water Breaks?

Call your midwife, nurse, or doctor. It may be time to hustle to your birthing center or hospital. However, if you’re not yet having closely spaced contractions, your provider may suggest waiting a while longer at home. Some doctors allow women to shower after the bag of water has broken, but definitely not taking a bath. The fear is that while bathing in your tub, some bacteria may make their way up into the uterus and cause infection.  (Although, it’s OK to labor in water once you’re at the hospital or birth center.)

What if Your Water Doesn’t Break?

Some women’s water never breaks on its own! In that case, your practitioner may perform an amniotomy, also known as an AROM, or artificial rupture of membranes. During this procedure, a thin plastic hook is inserted through the cervix to pop the bag of water. This sounds scarier than it is, and many women don’t even feel it, especially if they are already in active labor.  

Whether or not your water breaking is the cinematic moment the movies made you think it would be, it is the exciting start to a great story…your motherhood journey!

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