In popular culture, ‘waters breaking’ is always the first sign of labour, and it happens very suddenly and usually in public. Here, we talk about what it’s really like.
What are my ‘waters’?
Your baby develops inside a bag of fluid called the amniotic sac. When your baby is ready to be born, the sac breaks and the fluid comes out through your vagina. This is your waters breaking.
Your waters may break before you go to hospital (if that’s where you plan to give birth) but they are more likely to break during labour. Sometimes, your midwife may break your waters for you to induce or speed up your labour. This is known as artificial rupture of membranes (ARM).
There’s no need to worry about your waters breaking. But get medical advice straight away if your waters break and you are less than 37 weeks pregnant. This is because you could be at risk of premature labour.
Find out more about your waters breaking early.
What does it feel like when my waters break?
Your waters breaking can feel like a mild popping sensation, followed by a trickle or gush of fluid that you can’t stop, unlike when you wee. You may not have any sensation of the actual ‘breaking’, and then the only sign that your waters have broken is the trickle of fluid.
This is what women told us how it felt for them:
"It felt like I might have wet myself and it definitely wasn’t a gush like 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."
How do I know if my waters have broken?
If you experience the following, your waters may have broken:
- a popping sensation followed by a gush or trickle of fluid
- an unusual amount of dampness in your underwear that doesn’t smell like urine
- uncontrollable leaking of small or large amounts of fluid from the vagina that doesn’t smell like urine.
Does it hurt when my waters break?
No, it shouldn’t hurt when your waters break or when they are broken for you. The amniotic sac, which is the part that ‘breaks’ doesn’t have pain receptors, which are the things that cause you to feel pain.
"My waters didn’t break of their own accord so I had them broken for me while 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."
My waters broke, what do I do now?
Put a sanitary pad (not a tampon) in your pants, if you can. Amniotic fluid is clear and a pale straw colour. Sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference between amniotic fluid from wee. The water may be a little bloodstained to begin with.
Once the waters have broken, your baby is at risk of infection and your midwife or hospital/birth centre is likely to ask you to come into hospital to be checked.
Tell your maternity unit immediately if:
- the waters are smelly or coloured
- you're losing blood.
If your waters break before you go into labour
Sometimes your waters may break before you go into labour. Most women go into labour on their own within 24 hours. If this doesn’t happen your midwife will offer to induce labour and you’ll be advised to give birth in hospital, if you’re not there already.
While you’re 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’re awake. This will help you find out if you’re developing a temperature.
Contact your midwife if:
- you develop a high temperature (around 37.5 degrees Celsius)
- you notice any change in the colour or smell of your vaginal discharge
- you feel your baby's movements have changed or they are moving less. You should continue to feel your baby move right up to the time you go into labour and during labour. Find out more about your baby's movements.
Having a shower or bath won’t increase the risk of infection, but sex might, so avoid this after your waters break.
How do midwives check if my waters have broken?
If you or your midwife think your waters might have broken but aren’t sure, you should be offered an internal examination.
With your permission (consent), your midwife or doctor will insert a small plastic instrument called a speculum into your vagina, so they can see the neck of the womb. You may be asked to cough to encourage the waters to pass through your cervix from your womb, if this cannot be seen easily.
“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!”
Why would my midwife break my waters?
If your labour is going very slowly, your midwife or doctor may suggest breaking your waters (also known as artificial rupture of the membranes) if they haven’t broken already. This can help to make your labour shorter.
Having your waters broken doesn't hurt your baby, but there are some risks as with any intervention.
Having your waters broken may make your contractions stronger and more painful. It may be worth talking to your midwife about pain relief before your waters are broken.
How are my waters broken artificially?
Sometimes, your midwife may break your waters for you to induce or speed up your labour. This is known as artificial rupture of membranes (ARM).
Your midwife or doctor will make a small break in the membranes around your baby. They’ll either use a long thin probe (known as an amnihook) or a medical glove with a pricked end on one of the fingers (an amnicot). This will feel a bit like an internal examination and won’t hurt your baby.
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If you’re feeling a bit anxious about giving birth, there are things you can do that may help. Here’s some helpful advice from mums who’ve been there.
The ideal position for your baby to be in for labour and birth is head down, their back towards the front of your stomach.
At the end of your pregnancy, you may have some signs that your baby will arrive very soon, even though you may not go into labour for a little while yet.
The membrane sweep is a drug-free way of helping to bring on labour when you are going past your due date.
You can call your midwife or hospital straight away if you think you’re in labour. You will usually be assessed over the phone.
NHS Choices. Signs that labour has begun https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/labour-signs-what-happens/#what-happens-when-my-waters-break (Page last reviewed: 09/11/2017. Next review due: 09/11/2020)
NICE (2014). Intrapartum care for healthy women and babies. National Institute for health and care excellence https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg190Hide details
ℹLast reviewed on June 26th, 2019. Next review date June 26th, 2022.