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Five million children in the United States age 5 and older wet the bed, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. If you're the parent of one of those kids – stuffing sheets into the washing machine, bleary-eyed and frustrated – know this: You are not alone.
Here, four parents share their stories about what works, what doesn't, and what they would've done differently.
My daughter inherited bed-wetting from me (Joanna)
Potty training timeline: My daughter, Lucy, was not easy to potty train. She's strong willed and wants to do things on her own terms. But by the time she was 3, we were good for daytime. When she continued to wet the bed at night, I wasn't surprised, because I'd been a bed wetter too.
My childhood experience: I have memories of my mother taping a Lincoln Log to my back at night to encourage me to sleep on my stomach. (This was somehow supposed to keep me from wetting the bed!) She tried to be positive, offering rewards like star charts to motivate me to stay dry. She didn't punish me, but I remember that the charts only made me feel worse because I knew I couldn't help it.
I didn't try a reward system with Lucy. We took the advice of our doctor, who told us getting beyond bed-wetting was about brain maturity and encouraged a "light touch."
Social pressure: By age 7 Lucy was still wetting the bed, but less often. Sleepovers became an issue. She was embarrassed about wearing disposable training pants. I gave her strategies for changing in the bathroom and hiding the wet training pants in her bag to bring home. Her accidents tapered off and were gone by age 8 or 9.
My best advice: Read up on bed-wetting! When you understand that nighttime dryness is a matter of maturation, you'll be less frustrated, and that'll help your kid, too. Punishing, or even rewarding, just stresses kids out.
Roll with it (Debra)
Potty training timeline: Vivienne, my youngest, was toilet trained around age 2. She got with the program right away, taking to her big-girl underwear so readily that I didn't think it would take long for her to be out of nighttime diapers. In fact, when she was around 3, there was a stretch of time when she stayed dry all night. Then, suddenly, she started wetting the bed. What we thought was a fluke turned into a nightly thing.
Routine: A pattern emerged. She'd wake up wet, come into our bedroom, and wake me. I'd help her clean up and change, and let her into our bed rather than changing sheets in the middle of the night. That was easier to do in the morning, after coffee. This went on for a year.
By the time she hit kindergarten, she would wake up, change herself, and crawl into our bed. At age 6, she now cleans herself up and gets out her sleeping bag. It's a surprise in the morning – did she stay dry, or will I have laundry to do? A few times, she has gone several days in a row without an accident. (Our pediatrician said the occasional dry stretches mean we're probably nearing the end.)
The emotional side: We've always assumed this is a phase she'll grow out of. It was never a problem for our other daughter (10) and son (12), and it's clear there's nothing wrong with Vivienne physically or emotionally. She has a vibrant personality and has rarely been sick.
Vivienne hasn't been embarrassed in the slightest, but then again, she hasn't gone on a sleepover yet.
It sounds like I've been calm about this the whole time, but I haven't. I'd be grumpy and exhausted, and she'd stand there giggling and smiling at me while I pulled out dry PJs and sprinkled baking soda on the mattress and loaded sheets in the washer.
My best advice: Have three complete sets of bedding so you're covered if you can't get things washed and ready for the next night, and just roll with it. The upside for me has been having the chance to cuddle with my kid way more than I ever expected to – and that's a truly awesome thing no matter how tired you are.
My 12-year-old still wets the bed (Kathy)
Potty training timeline: I knew day and night training were two different things, so when my son was still waking up wet after age 3, I wasn't surprised. But when he was still soaking a pair of disposable training pants at 5, I asked his pediatrician about it. She said it was totally normal, that some kids just take longer. She made it very clear that this is a biological process we have no control over. She also reassured me that my son is healthy and normal.
As he's gotten older, there have been dry stretches that make us think we're done, but then he wakes up soaked. So now I'm holding off on celebrating until he goes at least two months without wetting (which has yet to happen).
The emotional side: I've never gotten angry, I'm relieved to say, but when he was younger, there were times I think he caught on to my disappointment. I made a point of reassuring him that nothing was wrong with him, and that it wasn't his fault, but changing bed linens and sanitizing the mattress hundreds of times over the years takes its toll.
What didn't work: I tried it all, including waking him at night to pee and using special sensor underwear. Those supposed solutions did nothing but drain our wallet, create extra stress, and deprive us of sleep. In hindsight, we should have just left him in training pants. It would have made all our lives a lot easier.
I know this now: When any special product or tactic or strategy looks like it "works," it's just a coincidence, and your child is stopping bed-wetting on his own. Really, time is the only cure.
At 12, my son wears maxi-pads at night. He's mostly dry, but every so often he has an accident.
Sleepover strategies: If he goes to a sleepover or camp, he sometimes takes desmopressin [a prescription drug that reduces urine production at night]. It's not foolproof, but it boosts the odds that he'll stay dry.
When he was younger and slept over at a friend's house, I would give a private heads-up to the other mom. And while the other boys changed into jammies in full view of each other, he would say, "I like to have privacy when I change," and then go to the bathroom to put on his training pants. A few kids teased him about needing privacy, but he thought that was better than being teased for wearing training pants.
My best advice: My son used to say, "Bed-wetting makes me feel like a baby," and I'd always respond by telling him, "You are perfectly normal, and this is a lot more common than people think. I bet some of your friends are going through the same exact thing. Your body will stop wetting the bed when it's ready."
Choose your words carefully with your child. I always use "your body" instead of "you," because "you" makes it sound like it's something he can control, and he can't.
Let nature take its course (Karen)
Potty training timeline: Potty training our son, Blake, wasn't a huge deal. He turned 3 in summertime, which made it easier (less clothing), and by the end of the summer we were done. I figured nighttime dryness would happen soon. But two to three nights a week he'd wake up soaking wet. My son said he had "sweated." At first we believed him, but then we realized, duh, it couldn't be.
What didn't work: We never fussed at Blake for wetting the bed, never thought he was being defiant or stubborn. We figured he was a deep sleeper. But at first I refused to buy disposable training pants – I thought they were just a way to delay training and spend more money. I would get up at night and change him when he woke up wet.
Then his little sister was born. I was getting up two and three times a night to nurse her, and I couldn't deal with also changing sheets and PJs, so I gave in and got the disposable pants.
I did think, before we got them, that wetting himself might be unpleasant enough to make him figure it out on his own, but that didn't happen. Being wet never woke him until it was too late.
As soon as Blake was old enough to take care of it himself, we would leave out clean PJs and sheets, and he'd change and go back to bed.
My best advice: We were very matter of fact, which is my best advice for parents. It never seemed worth it to turn it into a struggle. I guess we took the lazy approach, and it worked. He was dry with no accidents around 5 1/2.
Bed-wetting: A kid's perspective
Now that you've heard the parents' side of these scenarios, find out how it feels to be on the other side – from a 12-year-old who recently stopped wetting the bed: