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 a presentation or the grocery store aisle when it happens. Only about 8% to 10% of the time will your water break prior to the onset of labor. Most often, your water won't break until you're well into labor.

That doesn't mean that 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 or if you're having bladder trouble.


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. Simply 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. You don't normally experience such a huge gush that everyone near you would need to worry about getting their shoes wet. Normally it's a matter of your underwear being wet. It is not often the thing of television shows.


What to Remember If You Think Your Water Broke

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If you think your water broke, you need to note a few keys things even if it turns out that your water did not break. Write down this information to share with your provider. This can be remembered with the mnemonic COAT.


  • Color (of the fluid)
  • Odor (Is there a smell?)
  • Amount (gush or trickle)
  • Time (What time did it happen?)

Telling your practitioner the color, odor, amount, and time can help your practitioner determine the best course of action for you. Just jot this information down as you follow the rest of the steps and try to figure out what just happened.


Quick Change

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Once in the bathroom get a dry pair of underwear, if possible. Or you can line your underwear with sanitary napkins or a pad or panty liner. (if your water has broken, 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 back home first. There you can take a closer look to see if your water broke or if you just peed on yourself.


Wet or Dry?

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The easiest way to determine if it is your water or urine is to put on clean, dry underwear and a pad or panty liner. Then you'll want to 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 like 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, simply get up and go back to the bathroom. Here is where you 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, a small leak from your bladder, or other common late pregnancy nuisances.


What to Do If the Pad Is Wet

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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.


Still Confused About the Fluid?

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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. She may advise you of other simple ways to test if it is amniotic fluid. They may also ask that you come into their office or the hospital to perform a small 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.


Hospital Testing of Fluid

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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 is 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 is dependent upon the protocols of your doctor or midwife.

You may be tested for Group B Strep (GBS). If you have previously tested positive, you may be given antibiotics in labor.

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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 Obstetrics Gynecologists. 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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