About one in ten kids this age can't stay dry at night. Luckily, there's a surprisingly simple solution.

By Diane Benson Harrington
October 05, 2005

Bed-Wetting Blues

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

Hidden Worry

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.

Stay-Dry Steps

Stay-Dry Steps

In the meantime, here's how to make accidents easier to bear for everyone in the family.

  • Explain the condition. Make sure your child understands that wetting the bed doesn't mean she's lazy or bad. It's a temporary developmental glitch.
  • Let him know he's not alone. "I tell my patients that there are probably four or five other kids in their class who have the same problem," Dr. Tanner says.
  • Don't blame your child. This just makes it harder for her to succeed in staying dry. And don't let siblings tease her either. Teach your child to respond to taunts by saying, "Sometimes I wet the bed, but I'll grow out of it."
  • Use common sense about liquids. When the brain-bladder connection works properly, it doesn't matter whether a child drinks water before bedtime. But for a child who wets, limiting excessive fluids just before bed—particularly caffeinated sodas—may help minimize the quantity of urine. However, be reasonable: Any kid should be able to have a drink if he's thirsty.
  • Address the stress. If your child has a setback that lingers for more than a week or two, find out whether something is troubling her and help her work it out.
  • Make bedding changes easy. Keep a waterproof mattress pad on the bed, and extra sheets and pajamas nearby. And involve your child in the solution. Ryan, for instance, helps out by carrying his soiled sheets to the laundry room in the morning.
  • Consider disposable undies. Large-size disposables, available at many grocery stores, can be useful as part of a bed-wetting program and for special occasions. There's no reason for a child to miss out on his social life. Says Amy Rea, of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, "My 7-year-old, Michael, wanted to go to a sleepover, and we talked about how he could change into his disposables in the bathroom so no one would know."

Cleaning Solutions

Must-Haves to Cut the Mess:

  1. Waterproof mattress pad. A plastic cover provides a layer of protection between the sheets and the mattress.
  2. Waterproof crib pads or bed overlays. Place these thin pads under your child to keep the bottom sheet dry.
  3. Fabric deodorizer. Spray the mattress to reduce odors.
  4. Disinfectant wipes. Clean a plastic mattress pad with them before remaking the bed.
  5. Prewash. Use prewash to neutralize stains.
  6. Vinegar. To cut urine odor, add 1/2 to 1 cup of white vinegar to a load of laundry (depending on its size).

Parents Magazine