Water breaking: Understand this sign of labor

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Water breaking: Understand this sign of labor

If you're pregnant, you may be curious about your water breaking — when it will happen, what it will feel like and what to do next. Recognize the signs of water breaking and know what it means for the timeline of your baby's delivery.

What will happen when my water breaks?

During pregnancy, your baby is surrounded and cushioned by a fluid-filled membrane called the amniotic sac. Sometimes — but uncommonly — the sac leaks or breaks before labor begins. This is called premature rupture of membranes. If this happens, you may notice a continuous trickle of watery fluid from your vagina or, just like in the movies, a more obvious gush.

How can I be sure my water has broken?

It's not always easy to tell if your water has broken. For example, it may be difficult to tell the difference between amniotic fluid and urine — especially if you only notice a trickle of fluid. If you're uncertain whether your water has broken, consult your health care provider or head to your delivery facility right away. Be sure to note when you think your water may have broken and be prepared to describe any noticeable color or odor. You and your baby will be evaluated to determine the next steps.

Is there anything I need to avoid doing once my water has broken?

Don't do anything that could introduce bacteria into your vagina. Sex isn't a good idea if you think you might be leaking amniotic fluid. It's OK to take a shower after your water breaks — but your health care provider may recommend skipping it and heading straight to your delivery facility.

After my water breaks, when will labor begin?

Most women who experience premature rupture of membranes go into labor soon after their water breaks. Sometimes, however, there's a delay — which may result in the need for an induction. The longer it takes for labor to start after your water breaks, the greater the risk of developing an infection.

What happens if my water breaks too early?

If your water breaks before the 37th week of pregnancy, it's known as preterm premature rupture of membranes. Risk factors for water breaking too early include:

  • A history of preterm premature rupture of membranes in a prior pregnancy
  • A genital tract infection
  • Vaginal bleeding during more than one trimester
  • Smoking during pregnancy

If your water breaks too early, your health care provider will evaluate you and your baby. It's sometimes possible to extend pregnancy for a short time after the membranes rupture, but generally there's no turning back. Most women who have preterm premature rupture of membranes deliver within one week of their water breaking. Potential complications include infection, placental abruption — when the placenta peels away from the inner wall of the uterus before delivery — and umbilical cord prolapse, in which the umbilical cord drops into the vagina ahead of the baby. The baby is also at risk of complications due to premature birth.

What if my water doesn't break on its own?

Remember, the amniotic sac usually doesn't rupture before labor begins. If labor begins on its own, your water will break at some point before the baby is born.

If your health care provider believes the amniotic sac should be opened during active labor — when your cervix is at least partially dilated and the baby's head is deep in your pelvis — he or she may use a technique known as an amniotomy to rupture the membranes. During the amniotomy, a thin plastic hook is used to make a small opening in the amniotic sac. The procedure doesn't hurt, but you may feel a warm gush of fluid when the sac opens.

If you don't go into labor on your own, your health care provider may do an amniotomy as part of a planned induction to encourage labor to begin.

It's natural to feel anxious about labor and delivery. Try to relax. While you may not be able to predict when your water will break, you can take comfort in your knowledge about the next steps.

Last Updated: 2010-12-04
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