What to expect when your waters break

Your waters can break before you go in to hospital but they are more likely to break during labour, or they can even be broken for you by your midwife to speed up your labour (a process known as artificial rupture of membranes).

In popular culture, ‘waters breaking’ is always the first sign of labour, and it happens very suddenly somewhere inconvenient and public. In real life, yes it is true that your waters can break before you go in to hospital but they are more likely to break during labour, or they can even be broken for you by your midwife to speed up your labour (a process known as artificial rupture of membranes).

What does it feel like when your waters break?

Your waters breaking can feel like a mild popping sensation within your womb, followed by a trickle or gush of fluid that you can’t stop like you would be able to stop urine. You might also 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:

‘My waters broke at about 11am when I was hanging out some washing at home. 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.’ Katherine

‘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.’ Deirdre

‘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.’ Laura

When my waters broke with my eldest it just felt like a trickle of warm water. A bit like a VERY heavy period. Or like wetting yourself BUT from the wrong hole, ha ha. I knew I hadn't wet myself. I could feel it was from the wrong area for that lol. Rhia

‘Can't remember with my first. With my second the sac was squashed against my cervix and baby's head. They exploded in spectacular fashion just before I started to push, they fired out everywhere in all directions!’ Nia

‘The build up to my waters breaking felt like a lot of built up pressure pushing down. Then I heard a pop and all I felt was brief relief from the pressure and a warm flow of water I couldn't stop for a few moments before my contractions intensified.’ Lyndsey

‘With my first they went on my brand new bedroom carpet! The day before my due date at 9am in the morning. I had just got undressed to get dressed for the day and they just went! After the first massive gush I just continuously felt wet! No matter what clothes or pads I put on I just soaked through them.’ Kathryn

‘When my waters broke, I was in bed and by my hip bone I could feel what I can only describe as a bulge and I hd no idea what it was so I was laying there prodding this bulge thinking to myself 'what on earth is this!?' well after prodding it a few mins very confused I just heard a pop sound and my waters gushed out! When I say gushed out, I was at top of the bed and my waters breaking managed to end up by bottom of the bed.’ Rachel

‘My water broke at 2.40am out of nowhere I was woken by the feeling I was wetting myself realised what was happening stood up and had a full gush of water go everywhere... My husband jumped and sat in amazement not sure of what to do next. Contractions started within the hour and I was well on the way with waters fully gone :-) very surreal but has to be the highlight of the whole pregnancy.’ Michelle

‘First time I was woken up by a warm sensation, and knew straight away it was my waters. I then got the shakes for 15 mins straight with shock (I had just turned 37 weeks and was fully expecting to go to 40!). My husband was convinced I'd wet myself until I insisted on calling the hospital. I was surprised that it wasn't just one big gush, after that initial burst they keep on leaking, and leaking and leaking... very strange sensation!’ Ellie

'No noise but felt like an elastic band had been snapped inside me followed by a wave of warm water down my leg! I was in the middle of a packed Goose Fair - if anyone's from Nottingham they will understand!' Carolyn

'Mine went before my contractions started and it just felt like I was having an uncontrollable wee.' Ashleigh

‘Mine didn't break they had to be popped with what I can only describe as a giant knitting needle!I was expecting a big tidal wave but it was just an uneventful trickle!Sarah

Waters breaking is not cause for panic unless you are less than 37 weeks pregnant. If you’re less than 37 weeks pregnant it is classed as Preterm Rupture of Membranes (PPROM).

Have my waters 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 that doesn’t smell like urine from the vagina

How do waters break?

Your ‘waters’ is the amniotic fluid that surrounds and cushions your baby in the womb. They are held, with the baby in a bag-like membrane called a ‘sac’. When your waters break, it is actually the sac that is breaking open and the amniotic fluid coming out. It is a normal part of the labour process.
In an uncomplicated pregnancy your waters break sometime after 37 weeks, before or, more commonly, during labour.

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 when you get a cut for example.

‘My waters didn’t break of their own accord so I had them broken for me while in hospital. The midwife came towards me with a knitting needle type thing which looked terrifying, but actually 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.’ Danae

My waters broke, what do I do now?

If you are at home when your waters break, put a sanitary pad (don’t use a tampon) in your underpants. It should be straw coloured and odourless and it might have small traces of blood. Then call the hospital or birth centre. If the waters are smelly or any colour other than straw (green, bright red, brown), tell your hospital/birth centre immediately. It could mean your baby is unwell.

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 in to hospital to be checked.

Most women whose waters break before labour go into labour naturally within 24 hours. If this doesn't happen, your midwife should offer to induce labour because your baby’s risk of infection is increased without the protection of the amniotic fluid.

Monitoring your temperature is a way to know whether an infection is developing so if you are at home while you are waiting to have your labour induced (or if you opt not to have an induction), you should take your temperature every four hours while you are awake. If you have the following get in touch with your midwife or hospital straight away:

  • a high temperature (above 37.4°C)
  • any change in the colour or smell of your discharge
  • your baby is moving less
  • you feel hot, shivery or generally unwell.

Your baby's heartbeat should be checked every 24 hours by your midwife.

Avoid having sex as it could increase the risk of infection. Showers or baths are fine.

If you don't go into labour within 24 hours of your waters breaking, you should be advised to give birth in an obstetric unit, so that if there is any infection it can be treated quickly.

How do midwives check if your waters have broken?

Sometimes it might be difficult to know if your waters have broken or not by just looking at your sanitary pad and an examination with a speculum might be suggested for this to be confirmed. With your consent, a small plastic speculum is gently inserted into the vagina, so that the neck on the womb will be visible to the midwife/doctor. You may be asked to cough to encourage the waters to pass through your cervix from your womb if this cannot easily be seen.

Read more about what happens during labour and birth.

Read more about labour and birth

  • A happy mother with her newborn baby.

    Delayed cord clamping (DCC)

    Cutting the cord immediately after the birth has been routine practice for 50-60 years but more recently research is showing that it is not good for the baby.

  • 5 positive ways to prepare for labour

    Manage your anxieties about giving birth, with some helpful advice from mums who’ve been there.

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    Getting your baby into the best birth position

    The final few weeks of pregnancy can be difficult: You’re probably feeling impatient to meet your baby, nervous about labour and also tired of coping with carrying a heavy load - and all the niggles that come with it.

  • Pregnant woman being checked over by doctor.

    What is a membrane sweep?

    The membrane sweep is a drug-free way of helping to bring on labour when you are going past your due date.

  • Woman in hospital bed ready to give birth.

    What to do when labour starts

    The moment has arrived. Your contractions are regular and building up, and your baby is really on his or her way…

  • Woman holding her back in discomfort.

    Symptoms of labour

    From contractions to your waters breaking, these are the typical signs that your body is getting ready for labour.

  • A plate of spicy curry.

    Can anything bring labour on?

    The waiting game can be torturous. Your due date has been and gone, you feel the size of a mothership and you’re oh so tired of waddling to the loo every five minutes.

  • Woman in labour wearing gas and air breathing mask.

    Pain relief in labour and birth

    There are quite a few pain-relief options available and it’s good to know what they are before you go into labour.

  • Woman lying in hospital bed ready to give birth.

    Assisted birth

    Even if labour has got off to a good start, it can sometimes slow down or problems may arise. If so, you may need some help to deliver your baby safely. These procedures are called ‘interventions’.

  • caesarean section

    Caesarean section

    A caesarean section is an operation where an obstetrician makes a cut in your stomach and womb and lifts your baby out through it.

  • Woman lying on hospital bed ready to give birth.

    Induction of labour - information about having labour induced

    In most pregnancies, labour will start on its own but in some situations your labour may need to be started artificially. This is called 'induction’ of labour.

  • Woman in labour.

    Monitoring your baby in labour

    Your midwife will check on how your baby is coping during your labour and there are different ways to do this.

Sources

  • Jones RE, Lopez KH (2013) Human Reproductive Biology 4th edition. Academic Press Elsevier, USA
  • NICE (2014) Intrapartum care for healthy women and babies. Clinical guideline [CG190]. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, London, England
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Last reviewed on August 28th, 2017. Next review date August 28th, 2020.

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