What to expect when your waters break

When your waters break it is often a sign that labour has started and your baby is on their way. Find out what it feels like, and what you need to do next.

Waters usually break during the first stage of labour. It is often a sign that labour has started and your baby is on their way.  But they can break before you go into labour, too. If this happens you’re likely to start labour within 24 hours of your waters breaking.

If your waters do not break, they may need to be broken by your midwife. It is possible for babies to be born still in their amniotic sac, though this is rare.

What are my waters and when do they break?

Your baby grows inside a bag of fluid in your womb (uterus). This is called the amniotic sac. This sac needs to break so that your baby can be born. The fluid it contained comes out through your vagina. This is what’s known as your waters breaking. 

Your waters may break before you go to hospital (if that’s where you plan to give birth). Sometimes, your midwife may break your waters for you, to help induce or speed up your labour. This is known as amniotomy, or artificial rupture of membranes (ARM).

What does it feel like when my waters break?

Your waters breaking can feel like a mild pop, followed by a trickle or gush of fluid that you cannot control, unlike when you wee. You may not notice the actual breaking. In that case, the only sign that your waters have broken will be the trickle of fluid. Or you might feel some dampness or wetness in your knickers. 

This is how different people explained the experience to us:

"It felt like I might have wet myself, and it definitely wasn’t a gush like it is when it happens in films. In fact, I wasn’t even sure my waters had broken. I put it out of my mind until I started having contractions later on that evening. I called the midwives and they called me in to be checked over."


"My waters were broken for me, to move things along. 'Breaking waters' sounds kind of brutal and I was scared and put it off for a while, but actually it felt like nothing at all – no pain and not much sensation."


"Both times they went while in the birthing pool, and both times just before they were born. There was a pop and the pressure I'd been feeling suddenly went. It was like the relief of releasing a full bladder, with a slightly warm sensation, as if I'd peed in the water."


Will it hurt when my waters break?

No, it should not hurt when your waters break or when they are broken for you. The amniotic sac does not have pain receptors, which are the things that cause you to feel pain. Your contractions might feel stronger and more painful after your waters break, though.

"My waters didn’t break of their own accord, so I had them broken for me in hospital. I didn’t feel a thing. It might be that the pain was masked by the pain of labour (which was pretty intense at that point), or it might be that it is in fact a surprisingly painless process – probably the latter."


How do I know if my waters have broken?

If you notice anything like the descriptions above, it could be that your waters have broken. 

But if you’re not sure, just call your midwife or maternity unit. It can be hard to tell the difference between amniotic fluid, wee (urine) and vaginal discharge. Amniotic fluid is often pale, clear and it does not smell. It may be a little blood-stained to begin with.

Try lying down for half an hour and then standing up. If fluid comes out when you stand, it’s likely to be amniotic fluid. Make a note of the colour, the amount and whether or not it smells. 

This may also help you decide if it’s amniotic fluid, wee or discharge. Vaginal discharge is likely to be thicker and more sticky than amniotic fluid, too.

If you or your midwife think your waters might have broken but are not sure, you should be offered an internal examination. 

With your permission, your midwife or doctor will insert a small plastic tool called a speculum into your vagina, so they can see the neck of your womb. You may be asked to cough, to help the waters move through your cervix from your womb.

You will not have this check if it’s clear that your waters have already broken.

"My waters broke differently with all of my children. The first time felt like the movie-style gush. During my second labour, my waters broke before my contractions started, and it was just a little pop and a trickle. I was monitored daily and went into labour naturally 2 days later. 

"During my third labour my waters broke in the birthing pool and it was a big pop. In my last labour my waters broke while I was pushing and my son pretty much surfed out on them!"


My waters broke. What do I do now?

If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant

If your waters break before 37 weeks, call your midwife or maternity unit straight away. They will ask you to come in for tests and checks to see whether:

They’ll also listen to your baby’s heartbeat. 

If your midwife or doctor thinks your waters have broken, they will use a medical term called preterm pre-labour rupture of membranes (PPROM)

With PPROM, there is an increased risk of infection for you and your baby, so you will be offered further tests to check for infection, and a course of antibiotics. You may have to stay in hospital for a few days, although some people go home again until labour starts.  

You may also need a course of steroids if you are between 24 and 36 weeks pregnant, just in case your baby is born early. Steroids will help your baby’s lungs get stronger, ready for breathing outside your womb.  

Find out more about preterm pre-labour rupture of membranes (PPROM).

If you are 37 weeks pregnant or more

If you are 37 weeks pregnant or more, call your midwife to let them know your waters have broken. They may ask you how far along you are in your pregnancy and whether you are having contractions yet. 

They may advise you to stay at home and see if labour starts, or they will ask you to come to the maternity unit to be checked over. Around 6 in 10 people whose waters break, go into labour on their own within 24 hours.

Pop a sanitary pad (not a tampon) in your knickers if you can. This will help your midwife check the colour of the fluid if they need to.  

The amniotic waters that surround your baby protect them. That’s why once they have gone, your baby’s risk of infection increases. 

Tell your midwife or maternity unit right away if:

  • the waters are smelly or coloured
  • you're losing blood.

This could mean you and your baby need urgent medical care.

What happens if I do not go into labour after my waters break?

If you do not go into labour on your own within 24 hours your midwife will offer to induce labour. You will also be advised to give birth in hospital. This is because being in a hospital means your baby can be treated for an infection quickly.

While you are waiting to be induced (or if you choose not to be induced), your midwife will ask you to take your temperature every 4 hours while you are awake. This will help you find out if you are getting an infection.

Let your midwife know if:

  • you feel hot or feverish, or you check and your temperature and it is above 37.5 degrees Celsius
  • you notice any change in the colour or smell of your vaginal discharge
  • your baby is moving less.

Having a shower or bath will not increase the risk of infection. Sex might though, so avoid it after your waters break.

Your midwife should check your baby's heartbeat every 24 hours during this time.

What if my waters do not break?

If your labour is going very slowly your midwife or doctor may suggest breaking your waters. They will also offer you oxytocin through a drip. You do not have to have the drip, but it can help to make your labour shorter. This is called augmented labour. It is not the same as an induction.

Your midwife or doctor will make a small break in the membranes around your baby. They will either use a long, thin probe (known as an amnihook) or a medical glove with a pricked end on one of the fingers (known as an amnicot).

Having your waters broken will not hurt you or your baby, though it may feel uncomfortable for you. It may make your contractions stronger and more painful. Your midwife should talk to you about pain relief before your waters are broken.

Find out more about the stages of labour, including delays.

Marshall, J. Raynor, M. (2020) Myles Textbook for Midwives. 17th ed. Edinburgh/ London: Elsevier

NHS (2023) Signs that labour has begun. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/labour-and-birth/signs-of-labour/signs-that-labour-has-begun/ (Accessed March 2024) (Page last reviewed: 09/11/2023. Next review due: 09/11/2026)

NICE (2023) Intrapartum care. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng235. (Accessed March 2024) (Page last reviewed 29/09/2023)

NICE (2021) Inducing labour. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng207/resources/inducing-labour-pdf-66143719773637 (Accessed March 2024) (Page last reviewed 04/11/2021)

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (2019). When your waters break prematurely. Available at: https://www.rcog.org.uk/media/35cdr4xj/pi-when-your-waters-break-prematurely.pdf (Accessed March 2024) (Page last reviewed 06/2019)

Patient Info (2022) Labour: childbirth. Available at: https://patient.info/pregnancy/labour-childbirth (Accessed March 2024) (Page last reviewed 23/09/2022)


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