By now, you may be wondering when — and at what inconvenient place — your water will break. In the movies, a pregnant woman’s water breaks days (or weeks) before they’re due date, but in reality, most women will have their water break during the early stages of labor — a much less dramatic event than you may have been led to believe.

How can you tell if your water breaks?

Your "water breaking" is the rupture of the amniotic sac (or membranes) that signals your baby is almost ready to be born. It usually occurs at the beginning of labor.[1] 

It’s hard to say exactly how much fluid you’ll lose when your water breaks. It may feel like stream of warm liquid that makes your underwear and possibly even your pants wet. But more likely is that it will be a slow and steady trickle of fluid. 

Once your water breaks, you may notice a continuous drip of clear or pale yellow and odorless or sweet-smelling amniotic fluid that won’t let up until your baby is born. You’ll want to wear a pad until you can get to the hospital or birthing center (or bring a towel and a change of underwear).

If you’re not sure whether your water broke, call your doctor or head to your place of delivery as soon as possible so they can verify whether you’re actually leaking amniotic fluid.

What causes your water to break?

No one knows for sure what triggers the chemical chain reaction that begins labor — typically around week 40 of pregnancy — but experts point to a number of complicated factors, including brain signals from the fetus.

Is it my water breaking or is it discharge?

Amniotic fluid is a pale, straw-colored fluid. Vaginal discharge, on the other hand, is a thin, milky-white mucus that’s similar to but heavier than what you might experience between periods.

Your water breaking may be accompanied by bloody show. This mucusy discharge is streaked pink or brown with blood, and it’s a sign that labor is imminent. 

You might also lose your mucus plug, which looks like you probably imagine: a glob of mucus. It’s usually a sign that labor is near (though some women can lose it weeks before delivery), but you may not notice it at all.

Is it pee or did my water break?

Though many pregnant women leak urine, especially in the third trimester, a sniff will probably clue you in. If the fluid is yellowish and smells of ammonia, it's probably urine. If it doesn’t smell or smells sort of sweet, it’s probably amniotic fluid.

Will my water break before I go into labor?

Don't worry too much about your water breaking when you're in the checkout line: Only about 1 in 10 women experience the rupture of the amniotic sac before they go into labor, according to the Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health. That means that for the other 90 percent of women, their water will break once they’re already having contractions.[2]

So chances are good that you'll have plenty of warning or you'll already be in the hospital when your water breaks. And lots of women require the artificial rupture of the membranes by their practitioner, called an amniotomy.

What if my water breaks but I don’t have any contractions?

It’s likely that labor’s on the way, and soon. Most women whose membranes rupture before labor begins can expect to feel the first contractions within 12 hours of that initial trickle, while others can expect them to start within 24 hours. In the meantime, you won't run out of amniotic fluid — your body continues to produce it right up until delivery.

For some moms, however, labor takes a little longer to get going. To prevent infection through the ruptured amniotic sac (the longer it takes for labor to get going, the greater the risk), most practitioners induce labor within 24 hours of a rupture if you’re near your due date; some induce as early as six hours after.

What you can do if your water breaks

Your health care provider has probably given you a set of instructions to follow when your water breaks. Follow them. If you don't remember the instructions or have any doubts about how to proceed, call your practitioner night or day.

If your instructions are to wait for contractions over the next 12 hours or so, you'll need to guard yourself and your baby against infection now that the protective barrier of the amniotic sac has been breached. Use panty liners or maxi pads, not tampons, to keep the amniotic fluid from wetting your clothes, and keep your vaginal area clean. When you go to the bathroom, be especially careful to wipe from front to back. And not that you're likely in the mood, but sex is now officially off-limits.

If you tested positive for group B strep in the weeks leading up to your due date, your practitioner will tell you that you need to get to the hospital right away after your water breaks (if it happens before you have contractions and go into labor), since there is a risk of infection.

What happens if your water breaks early?

If your water breaks after week 37 of pregnancy but before you’re in labor, it’s known as prelabor rupture of the membranes. Labor will likely begin on its own within 12 hours. If it doesn’t, your doctor will induce labor soon to reduce the infection risk.

If your water ruptures before week 37 of pregnancy, it’s known as preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM)You may have an increased risk of PPROM if you:

If your water does break before 37 weeks, call your doctor immediately. PPROM may require hospitalization or delivery and comes with the risk of preterm labor, infection of the amniotic fluid, placental abruption and umbilical cord prolapse.

When to call the doctor right away about your water breaking

Wondering when it's time to call your practitioner ASAP? Follow these guidelines:

  • Your water breaks and the fluid looks green or brown, which may mean your baby had a bowel movement in utero (known as meconium).
  • You're at 37 weeks or earlier in your pregnancy (though it's unlikely this will happen).
  • Your water breaks and your baby is in a breech position. Breech babies have a higher risk of complications during delivery, so you’ll likely need a C-section.
  • You experience a small, one-time gush of fluid. It's possible the membrane has ruptured, but your baby's head came down and stopped the leak. This ups the risk of infection.
  • You feel something in your vagina or see a loop of the umbilical cord at the vaginal opening. Call 911. Rarely, when the membranes rupture before labor begins and the baby’s not yet engaged in the pelvis (more likely when the baby is breech or preterm), the umbilical cord can become “prolapsed” — swept into the cervix or even the vagina with the trickle of amniotic fluid.
Chances are, your water will break right on time — think: when you’re already in the hospital, not halfway through dinner at a fancy restaurant. In fact, some women don’t notice their water breaking at all. Whenever your water breaks (or even if it doesn't before you're in the hospital), just know that it won’t be much longer before your little one arrives.