Helping Bedwetters: Tips From the Trenches

Parents and doctors offer their best tips for helping your bedwetting child -- and you -- cope.

From the WebMD Archives

Bedwetters can take a toll on everyone's patience, not to mention the toll taken on a good night's sleep. If you're the parent of a bedwetting child and are feeling frustrated, here are practical tips on what to do and how to cope.

Ask the Doctor About Bedwetting

If your pediatrician doesn't ask you about your bedwetting child, ask your pediatrician. Some doctors think parents will bring it up, says Howard Bennett, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., practicing pediatrician, and author of Waking Up Dry. Some parents don't think it's a medical problem, or their child doesn't want them to bring it up. As a result, he says, "parents and doctors are not always talking about this."

But if you do, your pediatrician will tell you that bedwetting is very common and declines with age. While 20% of 5-year-olds are bedwetters, 10% of 6-year-olds are and just 3% of 12-year-olds, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Bedwetting tends to run in families. If both parents wet the bed as kids, their child has an 80% chance of wetting the bed.

Your pediatrician may also tell you that you have a range of strategies to resolve bedwetting: From letting nature take its course and waiting for your child to outgrow bedwetting, to the use of a bedwetting product such as protective underwear or bedwetting alarms, to medicine or other treatments.

Understand the Causes of Bedwetting

Parents can get frustrated with their bedwetting child. Some think their child is being lazy or is wetting the bed for spite. Yet neither is true, says Bennett. Some cases are due to medical problems, trauma, or stress. But most of the time it's just delayed maturation. As the child matures, the message sent from the brain to the bladder to pee or not to pee becomes more reliable.

"The overwhelming majority of people, once they understand why the kids are doing it -- that it's physiologic -- not the parent's fault, not the child's fault, they can relax," Bennett says.

When you understand the causes, it's a lot easier to be patient and understanding, agrees Jane, 45, of Bethesda, Md., whose youngest of three children, Billy, now 10, wet the bed.

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She and her husband educated themselves about the condition. "The more we read and learned about this, it struck us as a physical inability to stay dry," she says. "So for us it seems unbelievably important that our child not feel shame or humiliation with it."

Her motto: "It could take a while, but there are definitely ways to cure it." They chose to use a urinary bed alarm, which includes a moisture-detecting sensor that sets off the alarm so the child gets up. After about six months of consistent use, Billy stayed dry every night. When he had a relapse a year later, they went back to the alarm again for a week and he was dry again.

Don't Pressure, "Guilt Trip," or Punish Bedwetters

"The more pressure that is put on a child, the worse it is," says Robert Mendelson, MD, a pediatrician in Portland, Ore. "A lot of parents want to punish their child because they wake up wet in the morning." That’s not the right course, he tells them.

Steven Parker, MD, convinced parents by telling them it would be comparable to a wife saying to a husband (or vice versa): "I don't like it when you sleep and drool, or sleep and snore. I am going to punish you for that."

Offer Support and Encouragement to Bedwetters

Being a bedwetter can have a big impact, especially when a kid is ready for important childhood rituals such as going to camp or sleeping over a friend's house. Allow the child to express their feelings, Parker said. Reassure your child that the problem isn't his fault. Tell them it's understandable to feel frustrated but that this will pass.

Work with camp counselors, Bennett suggests. When one of his bedwetting patients went to camp, the counselor told the kids in his cabin they would draw straws to see which child had to get up first in the morning. He made sure the bedwetting child got the short straw. Then he helped him in the morning if the bed was wet.

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Sometimes kids wear disposable underwear for sleepovers and camp. That’s fine as long as the child is OK with it, but don’t force bedwetting undergarments on a child.

Thinking about how difficult the problem is for them can make you more compassionate, says Susan, 49, whose son Mike, now 10, was a bedwetter at age 6 but got dry after using a bed alarm. "It's a horrible issue, and it's embarrassing [for them]," she says. "I just felt bad for him."

If there are other children in the family who are already dry at night, enforce a strict no-teasing rule about the bedwetting.

Make It Easy on Bedwetters -- and Yourself

Consider the "double bubble" method of making the bed. That involves using a plastic sheet to protect the mattress, then a regular sheet and a blanket. On top of that, repeat the layer of plastic sheet, regular sheet and blanket.

When it's age appropriate, teach the child how to strip off the top layer, our doctors say. That way, there's no fumbling for fresh linens at 2 a.m. Be sure fresh pajamas are by the bed, too, so your child can change into dry ones quickly. You might also keep disposable underwear on hand for younger children, so they can change themselves in the middle of the night.

If a child needs parental help, split up the tasks or assign it in a way that agrees with both partners. Jane's husband got up when necessary in the middle of the night when Billy was bedwetting, and she helped at other times. "My husband is always able to go back to sleep," she says, "and I'm not."

Some parents wash the sheets themselves; others ask the child, if he's old enough, to do it. It's OK to have the child take responsibility, Parker says. "But often it's [considered] a punishment: 'You wet, you clean.'" That's not advisable, of course.

Parents can ease up on themselves, too, doctors say. It's nothing they did wrong, although doctors say they sometimes have to convince parents of that.

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"I began to think he's failing because I'm failing him," says Eleanor, 40, a California mother of two whose younger son Michael, now 4 1/2, used to wet the bed. With her husband, Ray, 39, she tried a variety of positive approaches, including a reward system for dry nights. After each dry night, Michael could pick a small reward, such as a coloring book. He was waking up dry by age 4.

Eleanor isn't sure if it was the rewards or that he just grew out of it. She's just happy he's now dry. "It’s the biggest milestone we have hit so far," she says.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on February 28, 2012

Sources

SOURCES:

Howard J. Bennett, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics, George Washington University Medical Center, Washington, D.C.; author, Waking Up Dry.

Robert Mendelson, MD, pediatrician, Portland, Ore.

Steven Parker, MD, director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics, Boston University School of Medicine.

American Academy of Pediatrics: "Bed-Wetting" and "Bed-Wetting and School-Age Children.”

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