How to Tell If Your Water Broke

Water Breaking vs. Discharge vs. Urine: How to Tell the Difference

COAT acronym

Verywell / Cindy Chung 

When you're pregnant, one of your 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 water breaking vs. discharge vs. urine. If you experience a watery discharge or feeling of leaking, these simple steps can help you determine if your bag of water has broken.


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). If your water does break, it's usually just a matter of your underwear being wet.


Remember COAT

Take a moment 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?

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 (never use tampons at any time during pregnancy).

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), or just experiencing a heavier-than-usual flow of normal vaginal discharge.


Lie Down and Rest

The easiest way to determine if it is amniotic fluid, urine, or discharge 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 vaginal discharge or a small leak from your bladder.


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. Discharge is clear or milky white. 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. Normal vaginal discharge is odorless.


Call Your Doctor or Midwife

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If you are still unsure about whether it was your amniotic sac breaking, typical discharge, 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.


Hospital Testing

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A healthcare provider 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 practitioner 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, you may be checked into the hospital or birthing center right away, or you may be told to go home until your contractions begin.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  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.

  3. March of Dimes. Amniotic fluid.

Additional Reading

By Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH
Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH is a professor, author, childbirth and postpartum educator, certified doula, and lactation counselor.