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Bedwetting

Bedwetting, or nocturnal enuresis, is when a child wets the bed at night, more than twice a month, after age 5 or 6.

Causes

The last stage of toilet training is staying dry at night. To stay dry at night, your child's brain and bladder must work together so your child wakes up to go to the bathroom. Some children develop this ability later than others.

Bedwetting is very common. Millions of children in the U.S. wet the bed at night. Some children still wet the bed at age 7, or even older. Although the problem usually goes away over time, many children, and even a small number of adults, continue to have bedwetting episodes.

Bedwetting also runs in families. Parents who wet the bed as children are more likely to have children who wet the bed.

There are 2 types of bedwetting.

  • Primary enuresis -- children who have never been consistently dry at night. This usually occurs when the body makes more urine overnight than the bladder can hold, and the child does not wake up when the bladder is full. The child's brain has not learned to respond to the signal that the bladder is full. It is not the child's or the parent's fault. This is the most common reason for bedwetting.
  • Secondary enuresis -- children who were dry for at least 6 months, but start bedwetting again. There are many reasons that children wet the bed after being fully toilet trained. It might be physical, emotional, or just a change in sleep. This is less common, but still not the fault of the child or parent.

While less common, physical causes of bedwetting may include:

  • Lower spinal cord lesions
  • Birth defects of the genitourinary tract
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Diabetes

Self-care at home

Remember that your child has no control over bedwetting. So try to be patient. Your child also may feel embarrassed and ashamed about it, so tell your child that many children wet the bed. Let your child know you want to help. Above all, don't punish your child or ignore the problem. Neither approach will help.

Take these steps to help your child overcome bedwetting.

  • Help your child understand not to hold urine for a long time.
  • Make sure your child goes to the bathroom at normal times during the day and evening.
  • Be sure your child goes to the bathroom before going to sleep.
  • It's OK to reduce the amount of fluid your child drinks a few hours before bedtime. Just don't overdo it.
  • Reward your child for dry nights.

You might also try using a bedwetting alarm. These alarms are small and easy to buy without a prescription. The alarms work by waking children when they start to urinate. Then they can get up and use the bathroom.

  • Bedwetting alarms work best if you use them every night.
  • Alarm training can take several months to work properly.
  • Once your child is dry for 3 weeks, continue using the alarm for another 2 weeks. Then stop.
  • You may need to train your child more than once.

You may also want to use a chart or keep a diary that your children can mark each morning they wake up dry. This is especially helpful for children, ages 5 to 8 years old. Diaries allow you to see patterns in your child's habits that may help. You can also show this diary to your child's doctor. Write down:

  • When your child urinates normally during the day
  • Any wetting episodes
  • What your child eats and drinks during the day (including time of meals)
  • When your child naps, goes to sleep at night, and gets up in the morning

When to call your doctor

Always notify your child's doctor of any bedwetting episodes. A child should have a physical exam and a urine test to rule out urinary tract infection or other causes.

Contact your child's doctor right away if your child is having pain with urination, fever, or blood in the urine. These may be signs of an infection that will need treatment.

You should also call your child's doctor:

  • If your child was dry for 6 months, then started bedwetting again. The doctor will look for the cause of the bedwetting before recommending treatment.
  • If you have tried self-care at home and your child is still wetting the bed.

Your child's doctor may prescribe a medication called DDAVP (desmopressin) to treat bedwetting. It will decrease the amount of urine produced at night. It can be prescribed short-term for sleepovers, or used long-term for months. Some parents find that bedwetting alarms combined with medicine work best. Your child's doctor will work with you to find the right solution for you and your child.

Alternate Names

Enuresis; Nocturnal enuresis

References

Katz ER, DeMaso DR. Rumination, pica, and elimination (enuresis, encopresis) disorders. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 21.

Robson WL. Clinical practice. Evaluation and management of enuresis. N Engl J Med. 2009;360:1429-1436.

Update Date: 3/19/2014

Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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