How to Tell If Your Water Broke

COAT acronym
Verywell / Cindy Chung 

When you're pregnant, one of your biggest concerns might be that your water will break in a less than desirable situation, sending amniotic fluid gushing everywhere. You may imagine being in the middle of giving a presentation at work or the grocery store aisle when it happens.

Most often, your water won't break until you're well into labor (it happens prior to the onset of labor only about 8% to 10% of the time). Still, the fear is real that you won't know the difference between amniotic fluid and urine. These simple steps can help you determine if your bag of water has broken.

1

Take a Deep Breath

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Panic won't help if you think your water has broken. Take a minute to take a deep breath or two and collect your thoughts. Find the closest bathroom and make your way there. If you're at home you're probably going to feel more comfortable. However, if you're out, simply excuse yourself and go to the bathroom.

Normally, you won't experience such a huge gush that everyone near you would need to worry about getting their shoes wet (like you might see on TV). It's usually just a matter of your underwear being wet.

2

Remember COAT

check list
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If you do think your water broke, you need to note a few important things (even if it turns out that your water did not break after all). Write these down to share with your healthcare provider. Use the mnemonic "COAT" to help you recall the four key pieces of information. These details can help your practitioner determine the best course of action for you.

  • Color: What color is the fluid?
  • Odor: Is there a smell?
  • Amount: Is it a gush or a trickle?
  • Time: What time did it happen?
3

Make a Quick Change

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Get a dry pair of underwear, if possible. Or you can line your underwear with sanitary napkins or a panty liner. Do not use a tampon or put anything else in your vagina, as this can increase the risk of infection if you water was broken.

If you're away from home, you'll probably want to get home now if you can. There you can take a closer look to see if your water has really broken or if you are leaking urine (it happens, and is very normal).

4

Lie Down and Rest

Packing Your hospital bag for labor

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The easiest way to determine if it is amniotic fluid or urine is to put on clean, dry underwear and a pad or panty liner. Then lie down for about a half hour. If the fluid is amniotic fluid, it will pool or gather in the vagina while you lie down.

During this half an hour, spend time gathering your thoughts. Are you packed and ready for the trip to the hospital? Do you need to call anyone, such as your partner or doula? Try to do a fetal kick count or make note of your baby's movements as well. You can also use the time to take a quick nap.

At the end of the time, get up and check to see if the pad is wet or dry. A dry pad means that your water is most likely not broken. What you experienced could have been an increase in mucus discharge or a small leak from your bladder.

5

Check Color and Odor

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If the pad is wet, you still might not have broken your bag of water. Look at the fluid. What color is it? Urine can be many colors, but it is usually colored. Amniotic fluid is usually clear to pale straw colored (lighter than urine).

Smell the fluid. Does it smell like urine? If it smells like urine, it probably is urine. Bladder control issues are not uncommon in pregnancy. If it smells like bleach, it is more likely to be amniotic fluid.

6

Call Your Doctor or Midwife

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If you are still unsure about whether it was your amniotic sac breaking or urine leaking, call your doctor or midwife. They may advise you of other simple ways to test if it is amniotic fluid. They may also ask that you come into the office or the hospital so they can perform a test on the fluid.

If you are asked to go in to see the doctor, bring everything you'd need to give birth with you in case they tell you to stay.

7

Hospital Testing

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Your doctor or midwife will use one of two common tests to see if the fluid leaking is your water or not. One simply involves a vaginal exam. During the vaginal exam, the doctor, midwife or nurse will introduce a small piece of paper, called litmus paper. This paper reacts by changing color when it is exposed to amniotic fluid. If the paper doesn't react, your water has not broken.

The other test is to take a small sample of fluid and look at it under a microscope. When amniotic fluid is dry the pattern it makes on the microscope slide looks like a fern plant and is therefore called ferning. Thus, if they see ferning, your water has broken.

If your water has not broken you will be sent home to await the start of labor. If your water has broken, what happens next depends upon the protocols of your doctor or midwife. You may be checked into the hospital or birthing center right away, or you may be told to go home until your contractions begin.

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Article Sources
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  1. Caughey AB, Robinson JN, Norwitz ER. Contemporary diagnosis and management of preterm premature rupture of membranes. Rev Obstet Gynecol. 2008;1(1):11-22.

  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office on Women's Health. Labor and birth. Updated June 6, 2018.

  3. March of Dimes. Amniotic fluid. Updated June 2013.

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