What Happens When Your Water Breaks?
When you’re pregnant and your water breaks, it means that the fluid-filled sac around your baby has ruptured. This sac of amniotic fluid holds your little one snug and safe in your belly. Also called a bag of waters, it makes room for your baby to grow, keeps them in a steady temperature, and cushions the umbilical cord so it won’t get squeezed.
When your body gets ready to deliver the baby, your water breaks and drains through your vagina. This can happen before or during your labor. That’s when you start feeling contractions and your cervix thins and widens so your baby can pass through.
If your water breaks before contractions start, it’s called prelabor rupture of membranes (PROM). Along with cravings for pickles and ice cream, a pregnant woman whose water breaks suddenly before their contractions start is a cliché you may have seen many times on TV. In real life, about 10% of full-term labors start this way. Usually it’s more like a trickle than a geyser. It also can happen long after labor starts. Still, it’s important for you to know the signs.
Signs that Your Water Has Broken
It feels completely different for everyone. You might notice:
- A rapid gush that feels like you’ve peed in your pants
- A constant leak
- A slow drip
- A leak that starts and stops.
You might hear or feel a small pop. And remember, amniotic fluid doesn’t smell like pee.
What to Do When Your Water Breaks
If you think there’s any chance your water has broken, wear a pad (not a tampon) and call your doctor or midwife right away. They’ll usually tell you to come to their office or head straight to your hospital or birthing center. If it isn’t obvious that your amniotic sac has ruptured, they can run a simple test on your fluid sample.
If you’re within 3 weeks of your due date, the doctor or midwife may have you wait for a few hours to see if you go into labor on your own. Or they might start, or induce labor, for you. Most women go into labor within 12 hours on their own.
Studies show that babies born to mothers who are induced right away are less likely to get infections, need less intensive care, and go home from the hospital sooner than infants whose moms who watched and waited. Talk to your obstetrician or midwife about what’s best for you.
Early Water Breaking
About 3% of women have their water break before their 37th week of pregnancy. That’s called preterm prelabor rupture of membranes (PPROM). It’s more likely to happen if you:
- Are underweight
- Had a PPROM with an earlier pregnancy
- Have an untreated urinary tract infection
- Had vaginal bleeding at any time in pregnancy
- Had problems with your cervix during pregnancy
You need to go to the hospital right away for PPROM.
If you're at least 34 weeks pregnant, the doctor may want you to give birth to lower the odds that you or your baby will pick up a serious infection.
If you're 23-34 weeks pregnant, it’s usually best to delay delivery so your baby has more time to grow. You’ll get antibiotics to help prevent an infection and a course of steroids to help your baby's lungs mature quicker. You may stay in the hospital until you give birth.
If your water breaks before 23 weeks, the doctor will talk to you about the dangers and benefits of continuing the pregnancy. Babies born after such an early water break are less likely to live. Those that do are more likely to have mental or physical disabilities.
When Your Water Doesn’t Break
If you’re already in labor but it’s going slowly, your doctor may break your water for you. They’ll put a sterile plastic hook into your vagina and pull on your amniotic sac until it bursts. But research shows this doesn’t speed up labor for most women. The doctor should do it only if your baby’s head is already in your pelvis and low enough to cover your cervix. Otherwise, your body usually will continue with labor on its own until your little one arrives.