Charlene Pineda-Fischer, a mom of two in Burlington, Ont., had one of those rare water-breaking experiences worthy of the movies. “It was my last day of work and my colleagues had taken me to lunch,” she says. “I was just standing up to go to the bathroom—again—when I felt this whoosh.” She immediately soaked her pants and her chair. “I waddled as quickly as I could to the bathroom, where I made an even bigger mess.” Pineda-Fischer had to borrow a friend’s shawl and wrap it around her waist to get out of the restaurant without drawing any more attention.
A dramatic pants-soaking might be what you’re expecting, but it’s not the most common way to have your water break. “Only about 10 to 15 percent of women actually have their membranes rupture prior to labour, and just a small minority of those experience a large gush of fluid,” says Ward Murdock, an obstetrician-gynaecologist from Fredericton and president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada. More often, women start having regular contractions before the fluid-filled amniotic sac ruptures, giving them at least some warning. Others are so far into the labour process that they don’t even notice when it happens.
When your water breaks, you might feel a popping sensation, along with a slow trickle of fluid. It can be mistaken for urine at first, but most of the time, amniotic fluid is clear and odourless; you’ll probably be able to tell the difference, but if you’re unsure, call your healthcare practitioner who can do a physical exam and run tests to determine if you’re leaking. Take note of the time you felt the first trickle, as well as the colour and odour. (If it looks brown or green call your caregiver right away; your baby may have had a bowel movement in utero and will need to be monitored, in case she ingests some of it.) Once the membranes rupture there is a risk of infection so use a pad, not a tampon, to catch the fluid, and avoid sexual intercourse. “You shouldn’t take a bath, but you’re safe to shower,” says Murdock.
After your water breaks, contractions usually follow within 12 to 24 hours, if they’re not underway already. However, in some cases, women have their water break before their bodies are ready to start the labour process. Premature rupture of the membranes (PROM) usually requires induction to get things moving. If your water breaks before 37 weeks (known as preterm PROM), your healthcare practitioner might be able to extend your pregnancy, but in most cases, the baby will be born prematurely.
It’s also possible to need to have your water broken as part of a planned induction, or if there are signs of distress. During an amniotomy, your doctor or midwife will use a thin plastic hook (which looks like a knitting needle) to make a small opening in the amniotic sac and release the fluid. Some women experience contractions and move into active labour without their water breaking and they too will require this procedure.
As your due date approaches, it’s natural to be a bit anxious about this part of the labour process. To feel more prepared, keep a stash of high-absorbency pads in your bathroom and purse (you’ll need them after delivery anyway, to deal with postnatal bleeding). You may also want to put a plastic cover on your bed to protect your mattress, in case it happens overnight. Most importantly, remember that it’s a natural part of childbirth and it signals something wonderful: Your baby is en route!
The amniotic sac begins to form about 12 days after conception. Not only does it cushion and protect your baby and the umbilical cord, it also regulates her temperature. As the baby breathes in and ingests the fluid, it develops her lungs and digestive system.
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