Urinary Incontinence in Children

  • Medical Author:
    David Perlstein, MD, MBA, FAAP

    Dr. Perlstein received his Medical Degree from the University of Cincinnati and then completed his internship and residency in pediatrics at The New York Hospital, Cornell medical Center in New York City. After serving an additional year as Chief Pediatric Resident, he worked as a private practitioner and then was appointed Director of Ambulatory Pediatrics at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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Urinary incontinence in children facts

  • Urinary incontinence in children is very common.
  • Nighttime wetting (nocturnal enuresis) is more common than daytime wetting (diurnal enuresis).
  • Most urinary incontinence is nonorganic and resolves without intervention.
  • Persistent primary enuresis and secondary enuresis may require further medical evaluation.
  • Treatment for most cases of enuresis involves behavioral modification.
  • Bedwetting alarms are very effective.
  • Medications should be reserved for select children.
  • Less than 1% of all affected children have persistent incontinence into adulthood.

What is urinary incontinence?

Very simply stated, urinary incontinence is defined as the loss of complete control of the act of urination or the involuntary emptying of the bladder. It is also referred to as enuresis. It can be caused by any number of factors, and in young infants and toddlers, it is usually completely normal. In order to understand the different causes better, one must have some basic understanding of the processes involved in urination

How does the urinary system work?

The urinary system is made up of the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra. Urine is produced by the kidneys and drains via the ureters to the bladder. The bladder serves as the storage tank, stowing the urine until emptied through micturition (urinating). The act of emptying the bladder requires significant coordination between the brain, nerves, and muscles. There are two major muscles involved in urination, the detrusor and the sphincter. The detrusor is a large muscle which contracts to squeeze urine out of the bladder, and the sphincter is a group of muscles which remains contracted to keep urine in the bladder. These two muscles must work in concert, one contracting while the other relaxes, to control the flow of urine. Dysfunction in either may result in some degree of loss of urinary control. The urethra serves as the canal which carries the urine from the bladder during voiding. Achieving bladder control must be learned, and some children learn earlier than others, and therefore urinary incontinence is normal in most young infants and children, but in older children and adolescents, it is not considered normal.

Quick GuideFoods and Drinks That Trigger Leaky Bladder in Pictures

Foods and Drinks That Trigger Leaky Bladder in Pictures

Urinary Incontinence in Children

Should I take my child to the doctor?

If your child is younger than 5, don't worry about bedwetting. Many children do not stay dry at night until age 7. Most children outgrow wetting the bed. A single episode of bedwetting should not cause alarm, even in an older child.

If your child is 7 years old or older and wets the bed more than two or three times in a week, a doctor may be able to help. If both day and night wetting occur after age 5, your child should see a doctor before age 7.

SOURCE: National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse


What are the different types of urinary incontinence in children?

It is easiest to divide childhood enuresis into two groups. Nocturnal enuresis occurs during sleep and diurnal (daytime) enuresis occurs during waking hours. Nocturnal enuresis is often referred to as bedwetting and is the most common type of urinary incontinence in children over 5 years of age. Diurnal enuresis is more often seen in younger children and more often a result of certain behaviors, though rarely it can be a sign of more serious problems. Another way to categorize incontinence is by the timing of the symptoms. If a child has good daytime bladder control but has never had a dry night, it is referred to as primary enuresis. Secondary enuresis is incontinence in an individual who has been dry for at least six months and then develops symptoms after that period.

How common is urinary incontinence in children?

Studies indicate that 20% of all 5-year-old children and 10% of 7-year-olds wet the bed, and of these, up to 20% also have some degree of daytime incontinence. In addition, nocturnal enuresis is more common in boys, and diurnal incontinence is more common in girls. Secondary enuresis accounts for about one-quarter of all cases and is most often associated with some psychological stressor or anxiety.

What causes nighttime incontinence in children?

Any number of normal and abnormal things can cause nocturnal enuresis in children. Boys are more commonly affected than girls. Most young children who suffer from bedwetting are physically and emotionally normal. Although the exact cause is unknown, the bedwetting is believed to be the result of a number of nonorganic factors, including developmental issues, overproduction of urine, and an inability to respond to the normal physiological signals associated with bladder distension while asleep. Since bedwetting does run in families, experts believe there is a genetic disposition as well and if a parent experienced nocturnal enuresis as a child, there is a 45% risk that their child will also suffer from bedwetting. In addition to nonorganic causes, there are also some less common organic causes including infection, anatomic abnormalities, neurologic abnormalities, and endocrine abnormalities such as diabetes mellitus.

What causes daytime incontinence in children?

Common causes of daytime wetting include voluntary holding of urine, urinary tract infection, constipation, and wetting with giggling. Girls are more commonly affected than boys. Less common causes include more serious issues such as neurological causes (neurogenic bladder), urinary tract anatomic abnormalities, and diabetes. Voluntary holding of urine is the most common cause of daytime wetting in young children. This is often observed in 3- to 5-year-olds who don't want to take the time to use the toilet. They are just too busy to take a break and will often fidget, squirm, and hold on to their perineal areas. Most children grow out of this on their own as they get older.

How do you differentiate between organic and nonorganic causes of urinary incontinence?

It is important to recognize that most cases of urinary incontinence are caused by nonorganic problems, but since there are organic causes, physicians may evaluate affected children with some basic studies. Evaluation always begins with a complete history and physical exam. This differentiates between the otherwise healthy child and the child with underlying disease. The clinician will probably ask about psychological stressors, such as starting a new school, the birth of a sibling, or parental strife. In addition, in order to evaluate the severity of the symptoms, parents will be encouraged to keep a voiding diary. These are diaries which document the number of daytime voids, volumes, timing, and relationship with eating and drinking. In addition, these diaries should document the frequency of daytime wetting or nighttime wetting. Besides the history, physical, and diary, a urinalysis can be helpful to screen for organic causes, such as diabetes and urinary tract infections. For children with significant daytime symptoms, ultrasound imaging of the urinary tract including bladder and kidneys may be needed to evaluate for anatomic abnormalities. Lastly and rarely, if a neurological cause is suspected, an MRI of the spine may be indicated to evaluate for spinal cord abnormalities.

Quick GuideFoods and Drinks That Trigger Leaky Bladder in Pictures

Foods and Drinks That Trigger Leaky Bladder in Pictures

What is the treatment for urinary incontinence in children?

The treatment of urinary incontinence depends upon the underlying cause of the problem. The primary treatment for nocturnal enuresis most commonly involves behavioral modification. This involves positive reinforcement, encouraging frequent daytime voiding, and periodically waking the child at night, restricting fluid intake prior to bed, and alarm therapy with devices that wake the child when the underwear or bedclothes have become wet. In all cases, most children are already embarrassed by bedwetting and it is important try to reduce the social and psychological impact of the condition. Moisture alarm therapy has a high success rate and works best for motivated older children and parents. The basic process involves placing a probe in the undergarments or bed which alarms when it senses wetness. Most children will sleep through the alarm; however, most stop voiding when the alarm goes off. The child's parent must get up and help the child to the bathroom to encourage voiding, change the wet sheets and pajamas, and reset the alarm. Moisture alarms generally work within two weeks to three months and should be discontinued if the child's symptoms persist after three months.

In addition to behavioral modification, there are some children who will ultimate require medication. Most commonly used medications include desmopressin acetate (DDAVP), oxybutynin chloride (Ditropan), hyoscyamine sulphate (Levsin), and imipramine (Tofranil). All of these medications have significant potential for side effects, should be reserved for a very select population, and should be used to treat the symptoms not as a cure, while awaiting natural resolution. Medications can be used intermittently for children who attend overnight camp or for sleepovers since these are 70% effective in preventing the symptoms, and bedwetting in these environments can be humiliating and stress-producing for children.

What is the prognosis of urinary incontinence in children?

The prognosis of urinary incontinence is dependent upon the underlying cause, however, most children who suffer from nonorganic causes of enuresis will simply outgrow the symptoms, and less than 1% of all affected children have persistent enuresis into their adult years.

Where can people get more information on urinary incontinence in children?

American Academy of Pediatrics
Healthy Children Internet Site
http://www.healthychildren.org

American Urological Association Foundation
http://www.urologyhealth.org

Medically reviewed by Margaret Walsh, MD; American Board of Pediatrics

REFERENCES:

Lane, W., and M. Robson. N Engl J Med 360 (2009): 1429-1436.

Levy, J. Pediatrics in Review. 30 (2009): 165-173.

Thiedke, C. Am Fam Physician. 67.7 Apr. 1, 2003: 1499-1506.

Quick GuideFoods and Drinks That Trigger Leaky Bladder in Pictures

Foods and Drinks That Trigger Leaky Bladder in Pictures

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Reviewed on 11/18/2015
References
Medically reviewed by Margaret Walsh, MD; American Board of Pediatrics

REFERENCES:

Lane, W., and M. Robson. N Engl J Med 360 (2009): 1429-1436.

Levy, J. Pediatrics in Review. 30 (2009): 165-173.

Thiedke, C. Am Fam Physician. 67.7 Apr. 1, 2003: 1499-1506.

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