After my water breaks, when will labor begin?

Typically, after your water breaks at term labor soon follows — if it hasn't already begun.

Sometimes, however, there's a delay. If you experience premature rupture of membranes, your doctor might stimulate uterine contractions before labor begins on its own (labor induction). The longer it takes for labor to start after your water breaks, the greater the risk of you or your baby developing an infection.

What happens if my water breaks too early?

If your water breaks before the 37th week of pregnancy, it's known as preterm premature rupture of membranes (preterm PROM). Risk factors for water breaking too early include:

  • A history of preterm premature rupture of membranes in a prior pregnancy
  • A genital tract infection
  • Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy
  • Smoking during pregnancy
  • A low body mass index

If your water breaks too early, your health care provider will evaluate you and your baby. It's sometimes possible to extend pregnancy for a short time after the membranes rupture, but generally there's no turning back. Most women who have preterm premature rupture of membranes deliver within one week of their water breaking.

Potential complications include maternal or fetal infection, placental abruption — when the placenta peels away from the inner wall of the uterus before delivery — and umbilical cord problems. The baby is also at risk of complications due to premature birth.

What if my water doesn't break on its own?

If your health care provider believes the amniotic sac should be opened during active labor — when your cervix is at least partially dilated and the baby's head is deep in your pelvis — he or she might use a technique known as an amniotomy to rupture the membranes. During the amniotomy, a thin plastic hook is used to make a small opening in the amniotic sac. The procedure might cause some discomfort.

If you don't go into labor on your own, your health care provider might do an amniotomy as part of a planned induction to encourage labor to begin.

It's natural to feel anxious about labor and delivery. Try to relax. While you might not be able to predict when your water will break, you can take comfort in your knowledge about the next steps.

July 18, 2013 See more In-depth