Spilling the Truth About Bedwetting

Millions of kids wake up with damp sheets. If yours is one of them, try these tips to help him stay dry.
bed wetting

Trevor Dixon

Two of my three children wet the bed until they were 8 and 10 years old, respectively. In fact, I'm not putting my name on this story because my daughter and son would be mortified if their friends ever found out. My third was dry at night before he turned 3. It's hard to admit this, but I was so grateful for my Dry at Night Child and frustrated by my two Wet Ones. Especially on long family road trips, when we had to protect mattresses and wash pajamas in sinks. It hurt my heart to watch our kids worry about wetting.

Bedwetting affects more than 6 percent of all children in America, and about 15 percent of 5-year-olds wet the bed almost every night. (Research shows that bedwetting is around twice as common in boys, possibly because they tend to mature later than girls, both psychologically and physically.) And yet there's often no physical problem behind it. The urologist who examined my oldest child at age 7 said she was physiologically normal, which was comforting. I also appreciated his pointing out that while there were things we could try to help speed her ahead to dry nights, the most important goal was to preserve our daughter's self-esteem. What I learned about bedwetting will spare you the agony my family went through.

The biology of bedwetting

"Nocturnal enuresis" is the medical term for bedwetting that affects kids age 5 or older who wet the bed at least twice a week for at least three months. Genetics plays a role. "If one parent had nocturnal enuresis, then there's about a 40 percent chance that his or her child will have it," says Mark Posner, M.D., a urologist in Baton Rouge. Our kids got the bedwetting gene from both sides of the family: Both my husband and my grandmother wet the bed when they were young. But I was still puzzled, since my kids had been out of diapers during the day by age 3. It turns out that children who are dry all day but wet the bed at night may produce more urine at night than other kids, have a smaller bladder than their peers, and may be deep sleepers who have a lag time in communication between the brain and the bladder. It's often impossible to identify which combination of these factors is the culprit, Dr. Posner adds.

Constipation can be a cause too. If kids put off having bowel movements, stool can back up and the full bowels press on the bladder, says urologist Steve J. Hodges, M.D., author of It's No Accident: Breakthrough Solutions to Your Child's Wetting, Constipation, UTIs, and Other Potty Problems. He studied kids being treated for bedwetting and discovered via X-ray that all of them had excessive stool in their rectum; within three months of regularly taking the laxative Miralax, 80 percent had stopped wetting the bed.

Like many parents, I had to remind myself that my children's problem wasn't personal. Unless your child is especially oppositional or hostile, chances are high that he would prefer to be in a dry bed and he's not having accidents out of spite or laziness. Think about it: How must he feel waking up in cold, wet sheets and then seeing his parents' look of irritated disappointment? And what about the embarrassment of soaking yourself at a slumber party? This is why experts caution against any kind of discipline for bedwetting. "It can truly be harmful to your child's self-esteem," says Sacramento pediatrician Melissa Arca, M.D.

To help preserve a kid's self-image, Dr. Posner makes a point of asking parents -- in front of the child -- whether there were other bedwetters in the family. "It's reassuring when a child learns that other people, including relatives, have had the same problem. I point out that some of their friends may very well wet the bed too," he says.

Cleanup Tips

My children used daytime Pull-Ups successfully at night until they were about 5, but after that, they often soaked through them. I moved my daughter up to diapers for adults, but sometimes even those leaked. What worked was double-sheeting the bed. You might try this process:

  • Put a sheet over a waterproof mattress protector (or even a shower-curtain liner), put another mattress protector on top of it, and another sheet on that. If your child wets, he can remove the top sheet and protector, and have a dry sheet and protected mattress waiting. Keep an extra blanket and dry pajamas nearby, and your child may not even need to wake you up!
  • To remove the urine odor from bedding and pj's, I swore by a capful of white vinegar and a sprinkle of baking soda with detergent in the wash water.

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