What Is Water Breaking?

Your baby is cushioned in the amniotic sac during pregnancy. It holds amniotic fluid, which protects your baby. When this sac ruptures, the amniotic fluid flows out of your vagina. This is commonly referred to as water breaking. 

Generally, water breaking signals that you have entered labor and your baby is ready to be delivered. A pregnant person’s water therefore usually breaks before or during labor.

However, in some cases, your amniotic sac doesn't break and your gynecologist may have to induce it. This usually occurs in pregnant people who have reached 41 weeks of pregnancy.

In others, the membranes may break before labor. This is called premature rupture of membranes. Most will go into labor on their own within 24 hours of their water breaking. The earlier your water breaks, the more serious it is for you and your baby.

Pregnant woman looking down and holding her bump by window in living room

Oscar Wong / Getty Images

Signs of Water Breaking

Some people may feel a trickle of fluid that they can’t control or a gush of water downward. Others may feel dampness in their underwear that looks like they've peed or had a heavy vaginal discharge. 

The difference between amniotic fluid and urine lies in their odor and color. While urine has a pungent smell, amniotic fluid is odorless or mildly sweet-smelling. Also, amniotic fluid is rather pale and straw-colored, but vaginal discharge is usually thin and white.

If you notice fluid leaking, use a pad to absorb some of it. Look at it and smell it to distinguish between urine and amniotic fluid.

The amniotic fluid will flow down more while you're standing if your water has broken. It may flow continuously over a period of time. Also, you shouldn’t notice any pain.

If you think your water has broken, call your healthcare provider immediately.

Purpose

Normally, your water will break during labor. However, sometimes your water can break before you go into labor. When your water breaks early, it's called premature rupture of membranes (PROM).

Your water usually breaks when you have reached 39 weeks of pregnancy. If your water breaks before 37 weeks, it's known as preterm prelabor rupture of membranes (PPROM).

PPROM affects 3% to 10% of all deliveries, and can cause problems like:

  • Detachment of the placenta from the uterus
  • Umbilical cord complications (the umbilical cord could slip down around or below the baby's head)
  • Infection in either the pregnant person or the baby

The cause of PROM is unknown in most cases. Some causes or risk factors can include:

  • Infections of the uterus, cervix, or vagina
  • Too much stretching of the amniotic sac if there is too much fluid or more than one baby is putting pressure on the membranes
  • Smoking
  • If you have had surgery or biopsies of the cervix
  • If you were pregnant before and had a PROM or PPROM

It's important to note that most people whose water breaks before labor do not have a risk factor.

Importance

Your water must break before your baby can be delivered. If this doesn’t happen naturally, your gynecologist may have to artificially rupture the membrane. Contractions in your womb can be delayed for a few hours after your amniotic sac breaks. If they don’t begin within 24 to 48 hours, your doctor may have to induce labor to decrease the risk of infection.  

Sometimes your water breaks when your baby moves their head into the pelvic region in preparation for labor, which puts pressure on the membrane as they prepare for labor. 

The uterus keeps making amniotic fluid until the baby's birth. So you may still feel some leaking, especially right after a hard contraction.

Pregnant people need to take certain precautions to avoid contracting infections after their water breaks. Things like changing your sanitary pad every four hours during the day, whether wet or not, are important.

Also, pay close attention to the fluid in your pad. It is expected to remain clear, without an offensive smell. You may, however, notice a faint pink color and mucus. After using the bathroom, wipe carefully from front to back to avoid dragging bacteria into your vaginal canal. 

Summary

Your water usually breaks when you have reached week 39 of your pregnancy. It often occurs after labor begins, but it can also happen before. The amniotic fluid should be clear and odorless. If your water breaks, you should call your healthcare provider immediately.

A Word From Verywell

Water breaking in pregnancy is necessary for delivery to begin. Most times, it happens randomly. Other times, your doctor or midwife might artificially break the sac. 

Some pregnant people may experience a sudden gush, while others will feel dampness or trickles down their thighs. If you have any difficulties determining if your water has broken, contact your healthcare provider.

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Article Sources
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  1. MedlinePlus. Premature rupture of membranes. Updated June 9, 2021.

  2. Dars S, Malik S, Samreen I, Kazi RA. Maternal morbidity and perinatal outcome in preterm premature rupture of membranes before 37 weeks gestation. Pak J Med Sci. 2014 May;30(3):626-9. doi:10.12669/pjms.303.4853

  3. Michigan Medicine. Rupture of the membranes.