The Bedwetting Secret

boy-sleepingHow many parents do you know who’ve been awakened during the night to change the wet bed of their school-age kid?  None, you say?  Just you?  Not likely.  The truth is that bedwetting is so common that fully 20% of 5-year-olds wake up wet at least 2 nights a week.  That’s 1 in 5.  About 5 kids in the average kindergarten class.

So why doesn’t anyone talk about it?  Why does bedwetting become the dirty family secret?  Well, we have some theories about that, including the persistence of old myths like ‘kids who wet the bed are lazy’ and ‘bedwetters have psychological problems’.  But now it’s time to pull off the covers and reveal the facts.  Let’s lay out the real causes of bedwetting and offer some simple tools to help you and your kiddo cope.  Out of the closet, now!

The key to the problem is DNA — yes parents, you’re to blame.  But then so were your parents, and theirs.  Wetting the bed is inherited.  Three out of four kids who wet the bed have a parent who did, too.   Researchers have located the genes responsible, but that doesn’t help a whole lot.

Whatever the genetic signals, children who wet may share some characteristics that contribute to the problem:

Lower hormone levels- ADH (anti-diuretic hormone) slows urine production in the kidneys at night.  Kids who wet may have less of it at younger ages.

Deeper sleepers- These are the kids who can sleep through anything.

Sleepy bladders- The bladder and the brain learn to coordinate activity during sleep, but that takes more time for some kids.

Poop pressure- Constipation and a full bowel can press on the bladder and irritate it during sleep.

Twice as many boys do it as girls.  The great news is that 95% of wetters stop by age 10 as maturation and development catch up.  Truth is, it’s a normal part of growing up for millions of kids, not a disorder.  Nighttime bladder control is a developmental process, and it doesn’t happen at the same time for all children.  But those who wet think there’s something wrong with them, and that they’re the only one, and that is problematic.  So how can we help until Mother Nature takes care of it?

  • Most important, talk to your child.  If you (or Dad) wet the bed as a kid, tell him so.  Talk about how you felt and when the wetting ended, if you remember.  This is a bonding opportunity that can have big-time pay off, so take advantage of it.  Let him know that lots of kids have wet sheets sometimes, even though they may not admit it.  It’s no big deal.
  • Cover the mattress with a plastic barrier and develop a ‘quick-change’ routine that works for your family.  A double-layer sheet set with plastic in between can help you avoid stripping the entire bed at 3 AM.  Make it as much of a non-event as possible.  Leave the laundry for the AM.
  • Limit fluids in the evening and always have your child pee right before ‘lights out’.  If possible, wake them gently and guide them to go once more just before you pack it in for the night.  Chances are they’ll be half asleep and that’s fine.
  • Keep those special pull-ups made just for this purpose on hand for sleep overs or travel.  Everyone needs ‘insurance’ now and then, and they work great on those occasions.  Not so good for every night use — they can do a number on his sense of independence.
  • Go ahead and try techniques like bedwetting alarms (they sense moisture and buzz to wake him up), bladder training, or medication with your doctor’s supervision if you feel it’s necessary.  Remember, the vast majority of kids will outgrow it naturally before they’re 10, with or without special help.
  • Reassure, reassure, reassure. Your child needs to know this is a normal stage that he’ll grow up and out of.  Avoid expressing disapproval, even though you may feel frustrated, too.

For more specifics, and everything you ever wanted to know about the ins and outs of treatment, check out this article at WebMD.

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.


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