We’ve all seen the movies and TV shows that feature childbirth. More often than not, there is a huge gush of water, a look of shock and “my water broke!”, maybe some panicking that it is time, and then we cut to the halls of the hospital. Here comes our in-labor character, huffing, puffing, and possibly screaming.
Everyone is tense, and then a few moments and loud pushes later, the baby is born. It’s all very dramatic, and for many people, it is one of the only depictions of childbirth they have ever seen before they become parents themselves. Hollywood is great at scaring new parents half to death about what to expect when labor day arrives; more specifically, when the water breaks.
Let’s talk statistics.
Humor me for a moment. I’m sure everyone knows someone whose water broke before contractions began. I know a few, myself. However, current studies show that less than 10% of people will experience their water breaking before labor begins. That means for about 90% of you, there will be noticeable contractions before your water breaks. This can help take away a lot of that guesswork that can come with broken water. So while this method is the popular Hollywood depiction of delivery, it is not quite as popular in reality.
I think my water broke, but how can I tell?
I’m glad you asked! Sometimes, your water will break in a big, noticeable gush. The gushing is pretty unmistakable, especially since it will continue to leak for hours after the initial breaking. If you are with people, they will likely notice the gush as well.
Other times, your water will spring a leak and give you more of a ‘light trickle’ effect. This is the type of water breaking that can be confusing. So many doubts run through your mind, like “did I pee myself a little, or is this my water?” and “maybe I just imagined it”.
There are a few ways to tell at home if your water has broken (these aren’t foolproof, if you have doubts or questions, call your doctor).
- When you squat over the toilet bowl and cough slightly, more liquid comes out
- You are saturating a pad in an hour with clear fluid
- You lose your mucous plug along with the fluid
- Contractions begin shortly after the water breaks
Your water will also have some very distinct features to look for, that set it apart from urine. This can help you narrow down whether you’ve simply had a weak bladder moment, or if your water broke.
- Clear or very lightly tinged with pink
- If there is an odor, it is faint and sweet
- It feels a bit more ‘rubbery’ than sink water, if you rub it between your fingers
Do I have to rush to the hospital if I think my water broke?
The simple answer is no. However, it would be totally irresponsible not to clarify. For a normal, low-risk pregnancy, it is totally acceptable to stay home for a few hours with your doctor’s permission. It can take up to 24 hours for labor to actually start, if your water breaks before contractions have begun. If you suspect your water has broken, you don’t have to panic and rush in. Drink some water, get your bags together, eat something light, and stay calm. If you are a first time parent, it is very likely that active labor is still a while off if your water breaks before contractions have started.
Remember Rachel, from friends? 17 hours after her water broke, she was still 3 centimeters. That was a pretty accurate depiction of what can often happen when your water breaks spontaneously.
Talk with your doctor at the end of your pregnancy and find out what their protocol is for broken water. They will give you guidelines on when to head to the hospital. When your water breaks, you should call your doctor to let them know, even if you plan to stay at home for a little while longer and wait for labor to set in.
Are there times when I should head to the hospital immediately after my water breaks?
Yes! This is the second part of my answer above. For a healthy, low-risk pregnancy, waiting is usually an option. However, there are some conditions to waiting. There are certain things that, if they are present when your water breaks, mean you need to head to the hospital immediately for monitoring and care. They include
- The water being tinged with brown, green, or black
- A foul odor
- Heavy bleeding (more than just when you wipe)
- If you are having more than one baby
- Strong, intense contractions that take your breath away and are in the 5-1-1 range
- If you are Group B Strep positive
- Being pre-term (less than 37 weeks pregnant)
If any of those things apply to you when your water breaks, or even if you suspect it has broken but aren’t sure, call your doctor and head to the hospital immediately.
Are there risks when my water breaks?
Everything in life carries some degree of risk. Some great, some miniscule. There are a few risks associated with your water breaking, especially if labor has not started yet. Some are mild, while some are more serious. The risks themselves are not overly common, but it is still important to know what they are.
This is a risk most associated with time, but it also has to do with bacteria in the vaginal canal. Any foreign objects introduced to the vaginal canal, either immediately before or any time after your water has broken, carry the risk of infection. For this reason, if you suspect that your water broke, do not stick anything into your vagina. Wait for the medical staff to check you with gloves in a more sterile environment. Even with gloves, there is a risk of introducing bacteria, so many people opt to minimize vaginal exams once their water has ruptured. Traditionally, care providers didn’t like to let people labor more than 24 hours after the water had broken. Now, things are usually much more flexible, on the condition that they can monitor your temperature and the baby’s heart rate, to quickly detect any signs of infection or distress.
Labor Does Not Start.
In the event that your water breaks, hours go by, and labor does not start, your care provider will likely recommend an augmentation or induction to help move things along. This has to do with the risks of infection, listed above. While waiting a bit isn’t necessarily a bad thing, waiting too long can introduce other complications. Finding that happy medium is important, and it is something to discuss with your care provider.
This is typically the most rare and extreme risk. Cord prolapse happens when the umbilical cord slips out of your cervix. This means that the baby’s head is pressing down on it, as well as the force of any contractions you may be having. That will cut off the blood and oxygen supply to your baby, and can be fatal if not detected quickly. If your water has broken and you feel something sitting in your vaginal canal, or see your umbilical cord hanging out between your legs, call 911 immediately if you are not at the hospital, and lay in a position that elevates your pelvis.
Cord prolapse is rare, and typically only happens when your baby is not already fully engaged in your pelvis. If your baby is still high up, that gives the cord room to slip below their head and be pinched off. This is one of the reasons that once your water has broken, your care provider likely will not want you walking around unless your baby is fully descended into your pelvis.
Remember, when it doubt, get checked out!
If you suspect your water has broken, call your doctor and go get checked out. They want you to come to them, the medical professionals, with any questions or concerns. That’s why they are there!
As doulas, we aren’t medical personnel, and can’t give you medical advice. We can help calm your nerves, remind you to call your doctor, and cheer you on. We want you to feel prepared and ready, and know that you can lean on us for support. We’ll work alongside your medical team so that if your water does break, you have the best of all worlds at your side. You don’t have to be afraid. You are in good hands.