When your water breaks, it means that the amniotic sac has ruptured. The amniotic sac is where your baby has been cushioned throughout your pregnancy. When it ruptures, you may feel a trickle or flow of water out of your vagina.
Water breaking is usually a sign that you are in or about to be in labor. Unlike dramatic scenes in movies and television, babies are not usually born immediately after the water breaks. In most cases, it means that delivery is in the near future, but how long that takes depends on several other factors.
Time to Delivery After Your Water Breaks
Ninety percent of pregnant people do not experience their water breaking until they have entered active labor. For those whose water breaks before labor has begun, 90% will go into labor within 48 hours.
How long it takes to deliver your baby after your water breaks depends on several factors, including:
- Cervix positioning
- Duration of previous labor and deliveries
- How far along you are in your pregnancy
- Number of pregnancies and deliveries you've had in the past
- Whether or not active labor has begun
When Water Breaks at Term
When your water breaks at term - at or after the 37th week of pregnancy - how soon your baby will be born depends on whether or not you are already in labor.
If you are already in active labor when your water breaks, you can expect to move through the three stages of labor and deliver your baby within 24 hours.
If your water has broken before labor begins, your labor will most likely begin within 24-48 hours. If your cervix has not already effaced or dilated, it may take a bit longer as your cervix must prepare for delivery.
If 48 hours have passed since your water has broken and labor has not yet begun, your doctor or midwife will discuss your options with you. This may include inducing labor medically with medications (e.g., Pitocin) or trying natural methods to begin contractions, such as nipple stimulation with your hands or a breast pump, going for a long walk, or putting pressure on certain spots (acupressure) to stimulate the uterus and encourage contractions.
The risk of infection increases slightly the longer your water is broken before giving birth. To reduce the risk of infection, it is best to avoid sex, penetration, and frequent cervix checks once the membranes have ruptured.
When Water Breaks Preterm
In some cases, a pregnant person's water breaks before they have reached full-term (37 weeks). Exactly what happens next depends on how far along they are in their pregnancy.
Less than 34 Weeks
Preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM) is the term used when a pregnant person's water breaks before 37 weeks gestation. Contact your OB/GYN or midwife immediately if your water has broken before 37 weeks. If you are between 24-34 weeks pregnant, your provider will attempt to delay labor and delivery until your baby has had a chance to spend more time growing in utero to prevent premature birth. During this time, your and your baby's health will be closely monitored and you may be given the following:
- Antibiotics to reduce the risk of infection in you and your baby
- Steroids to mature the baby's lungs quickly
- Surfactant test, which measures the maturity of your baby's lungs
If you or your baby are showing signs of infection, your labor may be induced.
34 to 37 Weeks
If you are between 34 to 37 weeks pregnant when your water breaks, this is known as prelabor rupture of membranes (PROM). Depending on how far along you are, your doctor or midwife may either induce labor or encourage you to continue your pregnancy to give your baby more time to develop in utero.
How Long After Water Breaks and Contractions Start?
How long it takes after your water breaks until the baby is born varies from pregnancy to pregnancy. Some people will deliver within minutes or hours of their water breaking, and others may wait days for labor to begin and for the baby to make his or her grand entrance.
Contractions usually begin shortly after water breaks (if they haven't already begun), but not always. Call your doctor or midwife to ask for their advice on when to head to the hospital or what to do next.