Feature Archive

Bed-Wetting Myths Debunked

What to do and not to do if your child wets the bed.

By Denise Mann
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Mornings are a whole lot brighter at Terry Packer's (not his real name) Long Island home these days. Terry, now 16, hasn't wet the bed in a year.

But there was a time that his parents did not believe a morning would ever start without changing sopping wet sheets.

Terry and his family are not alone.

In the U.S., about 5 to 7 million children aged 6 years or older suffer from primary nocturnal enuresis also called nighttime bed-wetting or the involuntary loss of urine at night when they could reasonably be expected to stay dry. If a child wets the bed after age 5 or 6, there is an 85% chance he or she will still do it a year later, based on statistics from the National Kidney Foundation (NKF).

Terry started wetting the bed age 4 and continued to do so until he turned 15. His family was at their wit's end and didn't know where to turn for help.

That's because myths abound when it comes to bed-wetting and they often prevent children from getting the proper help, says Alan Greene, MD, an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., and author of several books including the forthcoming From First Kicks to First Steps.

WebMD talked to leading pediatricians to debunk some of the more common myths and address parental concerns about bed-wetting. Here's what we uncovered:

There's something wrong with my 3-year-old!

"Bed-wetting is very common in younger kids, in fact, it is so common that it is even considered normal before age 5," Greene says. "Nighttime dryness is the last part of toilet learning that kids achieve," he adds. At ages 6 and below, bed-wetting only needs to be addressed if the child is feeling really bad about himself as a result, he says.

"As adults, when the bladder gets full, it sends a signal to brain to wake up or you start dreaming about water or going to bathroom and then you wake up, but for kids the signal isn't quite strong enough to get them awake," Greene says.

That's why "it is normal for kids to wet the bed," agrees Charles I. Shubin, director of the children's health center at Mercy FamilyCare in Baltimore, Md. "By age 6, one out of six or seven will do it."

He adds that bed-wetting is "a developmental issue and therefore the treatment is time, so for kids age 6 or under, they will most likely grow out of it."

Parents need to realize that "to some extent this is a social problem and in a more primitive setting, it would not matter," Shubin tells WebMD.

In other words, "if a 3-year-old is not bothered by wearing a pull-up at night, then don't bother him about it," says Oschner Clinic Foundation pediatrician Michael Wasserman, MD, of New Orleans. But "if it's a 6-year-old and he or she is afraid that a buddy will make fun of him because of bed-wetting, then it becomes an issue."

Don't Blame the Victim

"It makes matters worse when parents yell and scream at their children for what they do in their deep sleep," Shubin says.

And some parents still believe that bed-wetting is the child's fault. In fact, the NKF estimates that 35% of bed-wetters are punished by their parents for wetting the bed and that's the worst possible response.

Stanford's Greene agrees: "Many parents feel like it's their fault or their kids fault or that their kid is lazy and children often feel very guilty and ashamed and what this leads to is punishment and that only makes bed-wetting worse.

"For kids that are under 5 or 6, it's normal, they are not doing something wrong and it won't last forever," Greene says. "Kids need reassurance and encouragement, not punishment."

Such reassurance can be based on the fact that bed-wetting tends to run in families, Wasserman points out.

"Calm down and reassure your child and do things to help his or her self esteem," he says. "If it's true, you may even say 'daddy used to do this,'" he suggests.

He or she will grow out of it. This is usually true, Greene says.

Consider that about 25% to 33% of 4-year-olds wet the bed and about 15% of 5-year-old children wet the bed. From age 5 on, about 15% of children who wet the bed become dry each year. About 5% of 10-year-olds still wet the bed and about 1% of 15-year-olds -- like Terry -- wet the bed. About 1% of adults continue to wet their beds, according to the NKF.



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