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Most people have learned from the movies or TV that if a pregnant woman’s water breaks, it means the baby is coming right now! This is kind of true — sometimes.

Water breaking is an important sign of labor, but it doesn’t mean your baby is ready to pop out. It can mean that they’ve sent their RSVP and will show up soon-ish.

Sometimes other things can cause your water to break a bit earlier than expected. Your water might break before you go into labor or well before you’re ready to deliver. You can also be in labor even if your water hasn’t broken.

Basically, your healthy pregnancy, delivery, and water breaking might not look like anything on TV or like anyone else’s pregnancy.

Here’s why and how your water might break and what to know.

Water breaking is called “rupture of the membranes” in doctor-speak.

Your growing baby is floating inside a bag of fluid called the amniotic sac. When they’re almost ready to make an entrance or just at some point during labor, the bag pops or breaks — and amniotic fluid leaks out through the vagina.

Typically, your water will break because your contractions or baby put pressure on it — like popping a balloon from the inside. An older 2006 study using the rat model indicates that a programmed weakening of the membrane may occur as labor approaches.

If your water breaks too early, other causes might have weakened the amniotic sac. This can cause it to break or leak before your baby is ready to be born.

A weaker amniotic sac can happen if you have poor nutrition or too much water in your womb. A small 2014 lab study also suggests that infections may thin the amniotic sac.

Other times, the water doesn’t break even after contractions have started. If you’re delivering by C-section, your water may not break until the surgery.

Very rarely, the water doesn’t break during labor at all and the baby is born still enclosed in the amniotic sac. This is known as an en caul birth.

What can happen when your water breaks?

  • The water might gush out or just trickle down.
  • It might feel like you’ve accidentally peed your pants. Amniotic fluid may look a bit like urine, too. This is because it has your baby’s urine mixed into it!
  • The water can also have a tiny bit of blood in it. Don’t worry — a little blood is normal.
  • Contractions may begin or become more intense.
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Your water can break before you’ve had a single contraction or any other sign of labor. This called prelabor (or premature) rupture of membranes, or PROM — a somewhat ironic abbreviation!

It is possible for your water to break too early. This is when it breaks before week 37 of pregnancy. This is called preterm PROM, or PPROM. You might have a higher risk of PPROM if you:

  • are underweight with poor nutrition
  • smoke or use drugs during pregnancy
  • are carrying twins or other multiple of babies
  • have too much amniotic fluid
  • have vaginal bleeding in the second and third trimester
  • have inflammation or an infection in the womb (intra-amniotic infection)
  • have short cervical length
  • have a history of PPROM

If you’re not already in labor when your water breaks, you’ll likely get contractions soon. Most pregnant women go into labor within 24 hours of their water breaking, according to the U.K. National Health Service.

If you don’t go into labor, your doctor might induce you. This is because without amniotic fluid to float in, your baby isn’t as cushioned and protected. There’s also a higher chance of an infection for you and your baby.

However, a 2014 observational study suggests that it’s usually safe for mama and baby to wait to go into labor naturally after the water breaks. Your doctor may wait for 48 hours or longer before inducing labor if you and your little one are otherwise healthy.

If your water breaks too early (PPROM), you and your baby still have plenty of healthy options. What happens next depends on how far along you are:

  • If you’re at least 34 weeks pregnant, your doctor might recommend inducing you or delivering the baby through a C-section.
  • If you’re between 24 and 34 weeks pregnant, your doctor will likely try to delay delivery. You may be prescribed antibiotics to help prevent an infection. Your doctor may also recommend that you have steroid injections to help baby’s lungs develop and take magnesium sulfate for their nervous system.
  • If your water breaks when you’re fewer than 24 weeks pregnant, your doctor may try to delay delivery and will discuss the option and safety of a premature delivery with you.

If your water breaks early, you’ll need close medical attention so your doctor can keep an eye on your health and that of your baby. You might have to be on bed rest or remain in the hospital for the best outcome.

Every pregnancy is different, and you and your doctor will work together to determine what’s best for your unique situation.

The due date has come and gone and you’re willing your baby to move out already. But it’s not a good idea to try and make your water break.

Your water will break and your labor will start (or vice versa) when your little one is good and ready.

If you’re in active labor and your water still hasn’t broken, your doctor might help things along by breaking your water.

This medical procedure is called an amniotomy. Medically breaking the water can help make contractions stronger.

Don’t try to break your own water, though. This can lead to injury to you or your baby or to an infection. You can try other more fun things that may help naturally bring on labor, like getting a massage or having sex.

So, how can you tell for sure whether your water has broken?

Water breaking doesn’t hurt and it won’t always be obvious. In some cases, it may seem more like a water leakage than a break. Here are a few ways to tell whether your water broke:

  • Scent. If you have just a trickle of water down there, you might be able to tell that your water broke by the smell — or lack of smell. Unlike urine, amniotic fluid is normally odorless. Sometimes it might have a slightly sweet smell, but it won’t smell like urine.
  • Color. You can also tell by the color. Amniotic fluid is typically clear. It might sometimes be a very pale yellow or a have a very tiny bit of blood in it. All of these are normal.
  • Texture. Amniotic fluid is thin and watery. Unlike other vaginal discharge or the mucus plug, it won’t be thick, milky, or lumpy.
  • Sensation. You might feel your water break. Some pregnant women say they felt pressure and then a popping feeling of relief when their water broke. By all accounts, it’s a good feeling!
  • Amount. If your water breaks, you might have just a small amount of liquid or a flow of several cups of amniotic fluid. But it’ll probably be more than just a leaky bladder. It all depends on several things, including how much water your baby was floating in to begin with.

If you know that your water broke — or even if you’re not sure — call your doctor. You should still have time to put on your most comfy pj’s, grab your birth plan and packed hospital bag, and get to the hospital, even if you’re going into labor.

Get emergency medical attention if your water breaks and:

  • You’re bleeding a lot.
  • The water is dark or greenish.
  • The water has a bad smell to it.
  • You have a fever or temperature higher than 99.5°F (37.5°C).
  • It has been some time since your water broke and you’re feeling tenderness or soreness in your abdomen or belly area.

Your water can break before or during labor. Rarely, other causes can make your water break too early. In some cases, your water won’t break even if you’ve been in labor for ages.

If you think your water has broken, call your doctor right away. Even if your due date is weeks away, you may need medical attention. Your doctor will keep an eye on your new bundle of joy and deliver them when it’s best to do so.