Thanks to the magic of Hollywood, many of us have come to believe that when people spontaneously go into labor, it’s like a massive gush of water coming out from between your legs at the worst possible moment, and it’s all very dramatic. Anyone remember the first Sex and the City movie when Charlotte angrily points at Mr. Big on the sidewalk and screams, “I curse the day you were born!” and then her water breaks on the street? Turns out, most of the time, your going-into-labor moment isn’t going to be like Charlotte’s. And some pregnant people may even be wondering how to tell the difference between amniotic fluid and discharge, because pregnancy is such a beautiful and magical time, filled with bodily fluids. So really — how do you know the difference between amniotic fluid and regular (and normal) discharge? When should you worry, and what does your water breaking actually feel like? We’ll walk through what’s normal and what’s not. Most of all, though, if you are at all worried you may be leaking amniotic fluid, that warrants an immediate call to your health care provider.
What’s the difference between amniotic fluid and discharge?
Amniotic fluid is what cushions your baby and protects it while they’re in the womb. It fills the amniotic sack your baby is growing inside of the entire pregnancy. It is typically odorless and light or clear yellow in color. It also contains nutrients, hormones, antibodies and other fluids to keep your baby healthy. So there’s a huge difference between amniotic fluid and vaginal discharge — which does typically increase during pregnancy — but how can you tell which is which?
It has to do with the “continuous factor” explains Dr. Kelli Burroughs, department chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital. “Once amniotic fluid starts leaking, it is notorious for being continuous. Patients will commonly report multiple episodes of leakage in a short amount of time. Discharge is more intermittent,” she says.
Another way you’re going to be able to tell if your water broke or if it’s vaginal discharge is what the fluid’s consistency is, according to Liesel Teen, a labor and delivery nurse. “Vaginal discharge is normally a lot stickier or slipperier, kind of like egg-whites, and amniotic fluid is generally the consistency of water,” she says.
Even though they’re very different consistencies, Teen says it’s definitely tricky to tell the difference sometimes, because an increase in vaginal discharge is very common in pregnancy and sometimes when your water breaks, it’s like a trickle and not a big gush. Which makes it hard to know sometimes what it feels like when your water breaks.
What does late-stage pregnancy discharge look like?
Vaginal discharge — again, not to be confused with leaking amniotic fluid — is actually very important in pregnancy. It prevents infections from traveling up from the vagina to the womb. Your discharge will probably increase near the end of your pregnancy and it can range from clear, to milky white, and it will be sticky. However, “If you notice that your underwear is saturated or you're experiencing bright red bleeding, definitely let your provider know,” Teen says.
What does it feel like when your water breaks?
“Many patients (including me) experienced a sudden release of a water,” says Burroughs. “Like a water balloon popping followed by continuous leakage of fluid. Other patients will report a repetitive trickle, i.e., trickle of clear fluid, 30 minutes later another episode of continuous trickle, followed by more episodes of trickle.”
“For most women, the only way they know their water has broken is by the leakage of fluid,” Teen says. “However, a small percentage of women have told me that they felt a big pop in their belly right before their water broke!”
There are usually two different scenarios, Teen adds. Either a dramatic gush of fluid or a slow and steady trickle. “If all of the sudden you feel a huge gush and it feels like you peed your pants, your water may have just broken,” Teen says. “It usually doesn’t just stop with that one gush.”
What do you do if your water breaks
If you suspect that your water has broken, contact your healthcare provider immediately, Teen says. For some women, their water breaks and labor doesn’t immediately begin, but for others, contractions immediately start happening as soon as their water breaks and they need to prepare for delivery ASAP.
Bottom line? Vaginal discharge is a normal part of pregnancy. However, if you’re worried at all — at any point in your pregnancy — that you may be leaking amniotic fluid, contact your health care provider right away.
Dr. Kelli Burroughs, M.D., Department Chairman of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital.