How to know when your waters break

In the movies, a pregnant woman’s waters break and gush down in the middle of a public place. But in reality, it’s a different story. Here’s what to expect. By Xanet van Vuuren


If you’re anxious about your waters breaking in public and having to deal with a torrent of amniotic fluid, don’t worry. Your waters aren’t likely to break before labour begins.

ALSO SEE: 5 signs of approaching labour

What are your ‘waters’?

According to a group of experts at Oxford University Hospitals, during pregnancy, your baby grows safely while being surrounded by a protective bag of fluid known as liquor in the amniotic sac. This sac is also referred to as waters and is made up of two membranes that help to protect your baby from possible infections. If one of these membranes breaks, the fluid will start to leak out.

Is waters breaking a sign of labour?

Not always, say experts from the Mayo Clinic. Although these membranes will rupture at the beginning of, or during, labour it can happen early. If your waters break before labour starts, it’s called premature rupture of membranes (PROM). This could happen around your due date or before. If it happens too early, it’s important that you head to the hospital immediately as this could indicate premature labour, which means you might have your baby sooner than planned.

ALSO SEE: Your essential premature birth guide

TOP TIP: If you’re experiencing pain, or if you’re less than 37 weeks pregnant and planning to have an elective C-section, or if you have a high-risk pregnancy, you should get to the hospital as soon as possible.

However, very few labours start with waters breaking (or ruptured membranes), says Blissful Births certified doula, Magdeleen Moller. Usually your waters only break when you’re around 8cm to 10cm dilated. Sometimes your healthcare practitioner (midwife or gynae) will break your waters to speed up labour if you’re already dilating.

Additional signs of labour:

  • You’ll see a discharge of slightly bloody mucus.
  • In the first stage of labour, your uterus will start to contract, your cervix will thin and shorten, before stretching and opening. At the end of this stage, your cervix will be fully dilated, and contractions will be strong.
  • Your contractions may start as irregular, period-like pains that come and go, but will eventually get stronger and closer together as you dilate.

ALSO SEE: Labour contractions – what they do and how they feel

What really happens when your waters break?

Firstly, when you hear the ‘break’, you automatically think of something rupturing with force, but this word is misleading. If your waters do break before you start having contractions, you won’t experience a huge puddle of water around you. Unless you’re lying down, amniotic fluid is more likely to be a slow trickle – or at most, a small gush.

How will I know if my waters have broken?

“It’s not uncommon for moms to have all sorts of vaginal discharge during pregnancy,” says Magdeleen. “But I always tell moms to smell the fluid if they suspect it’s amniotic fluid” she adds. While this isn’t a failproof method of determining whether it’s amniotic fluid, the truth is, amniotic fluid has a clean, odourless smell. It’s not pungent like urine or discharge that can occur from a vaginal infection, she explains. “Also, amniotic fluid is normally milky or pinkish, not brown,” she says.

ALSO SEE: 5 types of pregnancy discharge and what they mean

If your waters break, you might experience a big gush or little trickle of water. If it’s a small trickle of water, this is normally due to a tear in the membranes up in the uterus, which can cause a constant leak, says Magdeleen. If you’re unsure, wear a sanitary pad and feel it after 30 minutes. If it’s weighted, there’s a good chance your waters have broken. If you suspect your waters have broken, it’s always a good idea to speak to your healthcare provider immediately, as labour will more than likely start immediately (or at least within 12 to 24 hours). In fact, “The longer the time period between your waters breaking and giving birth, the greater the chance that an infection can develop and affect your baby,” says obstetrician, Catherine Greenwood.

Remember that if your waters do break, you’ll probably experience a constant flow of water – more when you’re moving, standing up or after a contraction. This is normal.

Tips for when your waters break

  • Stay calm. You’re not necessarily going to have your baby right away. You still have time to breathe and think about the next step.
  • Inform your doctor, midwife or the maternity ward where you’re planning to deliver your baby, so they can support you immediately.
  • Have some maternity pads on hand. Once your waters have broken, they’ll drain continuously.
  • Remember that you’re more likely to start having contractions before your waters break, so you’ll be prepared for it.
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