Jennifer and her 8-year-old son, Ryan, are pros at middle-of-the-night sheet-and-jammie changes. Ryan mastered daytime dryness when he was 3, but nights have been another story. "At age 6, Ryan was wetting the bed four nights a week," Jennifer says. With mixed results, the Indianapolis mom tried limiting how much water her son drank before bedtime and having him wear disposable undies if he wet three nights in a row. Now Ryan seems to be outgrowing the problem. "He rarely wets anymore," his mom says.
Nighttime accidents—shouldn't they be history by now? For 5 to 7 million children ages 6 and over, the answer is: not necessarily. These kids (including up to 10 percent of children ages 6 to 8) struggle with enuresis, the medical term for bed-wetting. Some studies suggest that bed-wetting affects boys more often than girls, but the reasons aren't entirely clear. It also tends to run in families.
What the Experts Say
Nighttime wetting can be a shameful secret. "Bed-wetting was wrecking my 8-year-old daughter's self-esteem and social life," says one mom. "She'd skip sleepovers and then feel excluded because other kids stopped inviting her. Once, she went anyway, and lay awake most of the night, panicking that she'd urinate in bed. She came home in the morning exhausted and miserable."
Unfortunately, many parents mistakenly believe that children could stay dry if they just tried harder. "This is simply not true," says Max Maizels, M.D., a urologist at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago, and coauthor of Getting to Dry: How to Help Your Child Overcome Bedwetting. "Kids aren't responsible for wetting any more than they're at fault for having asthma."
So what is responsible? For 1 percent of kids, the culprit is diabetes or kidney abnormalities, but these possibilities can be ruled out with a complete physical. When wetting is temporary, the cause may be stress-related, such as going to a new school or having a new baby in the house. The reason for chronic bed-wetting, experts say, is an underdeveloped connection between the bladder and the brain. "The full-bladder signal doesn't get through to the brain to wake the child up," explains Lane Tanner, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Children's Hospital Oakland, in California.