Help Your Child to Stop Bedwetting
Each night in the United States at least five million school-age children wet their bed. Bedwetting can certainly be challenging for families, but there are a number of things parents can do to help set the tone in their family to be understanding and positive. With new insights, approaches and management tools, children no longer have to suffer the embarrassment of wet nights and parents no longer have to endure years of laundry. Here’s the step-by-step method of helping families manage bedwetting that I have used during my over thirty years in pediatric practice.
Step 1: Keep a Diary
Beginning between four to five years of age record the patterns of your child’s nightwetting for one week. Identify the triggers, what is different about your child’s day on the nights he is wet or dry? Is there a relationship to food, drinks, life’s events, family events, school situations, daytime bowel and bladder patterns, or family dynamics? Try to put your finger on the triggers that lessen the number of sheets you have to change. Don’t try to stop bedwetting by restricting fluids. In my experience, withholding liquids is not helpful and may be harmful. Children need to drink a lot for proper bodily function, especially during hot months. Restricting fluids may cause dehydration and constipation, which can aggravate bedwetting.
Step 2: Do a Medical Evaluation
Your doctor will want to know the results of your diary, the correlation you have noticed and the changes you have made. Your doctor will do a complete physical examination to detect if there are any neurological problems that may affect the urinary tract, such as spinal cord abnormalities that may affect nerve supply to the bladder. Abnormalities in the external genitalia, such as a misplaced urethral opening, may give a clue to deformities inside. Your doctor may watch your child urinate and examine the force of the flow. A “stuttering stream” rather than a smooth flow may be a clue that there is a structural abnormality in the child’s plumbing. A urinalysis and urine culture may be performed as a screening test for kidney function and to exclude a urinary tract infection. To gauge your child’s bladder capacity, the doctor may also ask you to measure your child’s volume each time she urinates over a three day period to see if she has a functionally small bladder. The usual bladder capacity is a child’s age plus two ounces. So, a six-year-old should be able to hold eight ounces of urine. Finally, if an abnormality of the urinary tract is suspected, your doctor may refer you to a urologist to perform studies such as an ultrasound VCUG (an x-ray picture of how the kidneys and bladder function) to reveal possible abnormalities that could prevent your child from keeping dry all night. The good news is that over ninety-five percent of children have no urinary tract abnormalities causing the bedwetting. Once you’ve excluded a medical problem, it’s important to find the right management solution for your family. The best thing you can do for your child is to make them feel comfortable and let them know you are not upset or disappointed. Consider nighttime training pants, which can help ease the stress of bedwetting and provide a management solution so you and your child can rest easy at night.
Step 3: Draw a Diagram
With the use of a picture book, such as Dry All Night by Allison Mack (Little Brown, 1989), help your child understand bedwetting by explaining to him how his kidneys make urine and fill the bladder. Here’s how I explain it to six-year-olds: “Your bladder is like a balloon the size of a baseball, and inside the balloon are tiny nerves, like feelers, that tell you when your bladder is full. When you’re awake, you feel this pressure, but you can hold it because there is big, doughnut-shaped muscle at the end of your bladder that you squeeze shut to keep your pee inside. So, if you’re in the middle of a game and don’t want to go to the bathroom, you’re able to hold it. When your bladder gets full, these nerves tell your brain that it is full, and you go potty. But at night your brain is sleeping so deeply that it says to the bladder, ‘Don’t bother me, I’m sleeping.’ But the bladder says, ‘I’m too full, I’ve got to go,’ so out comes the pee onto the sheets. We’re going to work out some fun games that help your bladder and your brain listen to each other at night, so your brain knows that your bladder is full and says to the bladder, ‘Squeeze down and hold it’ or ‘Wake Billy up to go to the bathroom’.”
Step 4: Teach Triple Voiding
Many children, tired and in a hurry, go to bed with a half-full bladder. Just before your child goes to bed, do some bladder-emptying techniques. Encourage her to “go three times” or “grunt, grunt, grunt” while urinating to “squeeze your baseball-size bladder to push all the pee out.”
Step 5: Do the Shake and Wake
Since most children wet their bed within a few hours of falling asleep, a perfect time for a second bladder-emptying session is just before you retire. Awaken your child completely. Your child must be awake enough to walk to the bathroom with assistance in order to be awake enough to sense what’s going on in his bladder. Carrying a sleeping child to the bathroom isn’t going to accomplish a complete bladder-emptying. As you approach the bathroom, let him splash water on his face or use a cool wash cloth to wake himself up and then go through the “grunt three times to push the pee out” bladder-emptying drill. If your child still wets his bed despite waking him up, do the timed nightwaking technique. The next few nights set the alarm and wake him up two to three hours later. Gradually adjust the timing of the nightwaking as the number of dry night’s increase. Once your child has a few dry nights, he will become motivated to better cooperate with these drills to stop bedwetting. Some parents in our practice achieved less disturbed sleep if they taught their seven-year-old to awaken and respond to their own alarm clocks rather than the parents taking the responsibility for waking the child.
It’s also important to consider the importance of sleep as your child develops. If you’re not comfortable waking your child during the night, or your child has trouble going back to sleep, consider using disposable nighttime pants for extra protection against nighttime wetting, so your child can rest comfortably at night.
Step 6: Do Bladder-Training Drills to Stop Bedwetting
Just before your child goes to bed or right after the first time you wake her up and put her back to bed, talk her through how the brain and bladder can talk to each other at night, so that she goes to bed programmed to get up when her bladder is too full. Give her phrases that imprint the actions to take to stop bedwetting: “I’m going to feel my bladder get big,” “I will get up and go to the bathroom when I feel my bladder get big,” “I will splash water on my face and grunt, grunt, grunt to push the pee out.” Try these dialogues in a fun way, so that the child is excited to stop bedwetting and get control of her body. Have your child repeat after you many times, “I will get up to go to the bathroom when my bladder is full.” She may actually drift off to sleep repeating this encouraging phrase. Do bladder-conditioning exercises during the day. These increase bladder capacity, neuro-muscular control and awareness of bladder fullness during the day, which hopefully will carry over into the night, try these exercises to stop bedwetting:
Progressive Urine Withholding
Encourage your child to drink large amounts of fluid and voluntarily hold his urine for increasingly longer times, even though he has the urge to go. As your child’s bladder capacity increases, like a stretched balloon, it should be able to hold more without having to empty so often. During these exercises, have him urinate into a measuring cup to see if he is increasing his bladder capacity.
Stop and Go
Advise your child to start and stop her stream many times during urination. This gives a child the awareness that she can actually control her bladder if she wants to. These exercises should not be done without the advice of your doctor, especially in girls who have a history of frequent urinary tract infections. In correct bladder training, you want to teach children to immediately listen to their bladder signals and not hold onto their urine, as this predisposes girls to urinary tract infections. But, if you are trying to stop bedwetting a few days of these exercises should help.
Step 7: Try a Bladder-Conditioning Device
If the prior steps fail to stop bedwetting, this is the next step. These devices consist of a moisture-sensitive pad that the child wears inside his underwear. When one or two drops of urine strike the pad, a buzzer or vibrator awakens the child so that he can complete his urination in the toilet. I have used these devices for many years in pediatric practice and they are so successful that I rarely prescribe bedwetting-controlling medication. My experience, and that of others, is that they are effective around seventy to eighty percent of the time if used correctly. Bladder-conditioning devices do just that–condition the child to listen to his bladder signals—which implies not just putting the alarm on the child and going to bed, but rehearsing drills with the child as to what to do when the alarm sounds. This technique operates on the principle of conditioned response. The child associates the sound or vibration with a full bladder and gets up to urinate. In time, the child subconsciously pays attention to his bladder rather than the buzzer, senses its fullness, automatically contracts the “doughnut muscle,” “beats the buzzer” and gets up to urinate. For these devices to be effective go through these steps:
Draw a Diagram
Explain to your child how the buzzer is going to work, that it’s a fun game that will help his bladder and brain listen to one another at night while he’s sleeping: “Picture your bladder filling up and your doughnut muscle squeezing down to keep the urine in. Visualize waking up and taking a trip to the toilet. Pretend your bladder is full and starting to stretch and it’s time to get up.”
Have her stop bedwetting by emptying her bladder completely by the triple-voiding technique (“grunt, grunt, grunt to get all the pee out”) each night just before going to bed.
Do the Drill to Stop Bedwetting
As he’s lying in bed, set off the alarm (the instruction manual will show you how), and condition your child to hop out of bed as soon as he hears or feels it. Then walk with him to the bathroom, show him how to wake himself up by splashing water on his face or using a wet washcloth and urinate three times. Do this sequence: alarm—hop out of bed— splash water on face—urinate three times. On the final run-through, place the moisture-sensitive pad in his underwear and attach the alarm to his upper shirt shoulder, as close as possible to his ear. Some alarms have soft and loud settings; most children need the loud one. These drills also help your child get used to the sound or vibration of the alarm so it doesn’t frighten him at night. As part of the drill, tell your child that the aim of the game is to “beat the buzzer,” that is, sense when his bladder is full and get up and urinate before the buzzer goes off. In our office, we actually pretend that the examining room nearest the bathroom is the child’s bedroom and I go through this drill with the parents and child, in addition to instructing them how to use the device. Initially, some parents report, “the alarm wakes up everyone else but the child.” If this family-sleep disruption continues, try an alarm that vibrates rather than sounds. You may need to camp out in his bedroom or near his bedroom a few nights, sleep in the room closest to the bathroom or use an intercom to stop bedwetting. Also, be sure there’s an unobstructed path to the bathroom that’s clearly lit with a nightlight, otherwise you’re likely to have a wet rug in addition to a wet bed. It may take several weeks to begin noticing the number of dry nights increasing. Relapses are common after a few months, so you may need to go through another round of the device and the drills to stop bedwetting once and for all. Some insurance companies will cover the price of the alarm, providing your doctor gives you a prescription for it. Some doctors will bill the cost of the alarm into the fee for the overall office consultation, which insurance may completely cover. Parents sometimes report that the alarm they ordered out of a catalog didn’t work. That’s because they didn’t do the drills, which are a vital part of the whole bladder-conditioning package.
The use of bedwetting alarms depends on your family. Alarms can be successful for older kids age 7 and up, but in younger children, bedwetting happens because they simply can’t make the connection between their brain and their bladder. Trying to intervene too early with an alarm is difficult for them to understand and can feel like a punishment. It’s also important to reiterate to your child that use of a bladder-conditioning device is not a punishment. Your child takes their cues from you, so it’s important to remain calm and help them manage bedwetting in a productive and positive way. Talk to your pediatrician to decide what’s best for your child.
If your child is old enough and has a desire to stop bedwetting, bladder-conditioning devices can be helpful.
Step 8: Medications for Dry Nights
Drugs do not cure bedwetting; they simply control it until the child grows out of it. Your doctor may suggest DDAVP (desmopressin), which diminishes the production of urine at night, similar to the natural action of the child’s own anti-diuretic hormone. Available in a nasal spray, or tablet, it’s taken before bedtime for two or three months and then tapered off. Many children have a relapse and need another course of the medication to stop bedwetting. DDAVP works for 80 to 90 percent of children who don’t respond to other treatments. It can be especially helpful before a child heads off to camp or begins sleeping over at friends’ houses. DDAVP is safe, effective and has minimal side effects, such as an occasional nosebleed and burning of the nasal passages.
To help these bladder-training techniques work, give reinforcements. Place a reward chart (sticker charts are packaged with the bladder-conditioning devices, or let the child pick favorite stickers) near his bed and let him chart “D” for dry nights and “W” for wet nights. After so many D’s, he gets an agreed-upon prize. (Better than a “thing” reward; try a social reward, such as a special outing at a place of his choice.) Soon you can phase out the rewards as the waking up dry and the feeling of mastery over his bladder becomes its own reward. As further motivation to listen to his bladder signals, encourage your child to spend overnights at the homes of friends and to go to camp—where he is more than likely to sleep in a cabin with at least one other bedwetter. He will soon learn that there are other members of the nighttime wet set and he is not the only one in the world who wets his bed. Parents, you are a valuable part of the controlling bedwetting team. These do-it-yourself steps are the basis of commercial programs that charge $1,000 to $1,500 to stop bedwetting. Consider nighttime wetting an opportunity to connect with your child and work with him or her to develop the proper management program for your family. Engage in open, honest communication with your child and let them know you are not upset or disappointed, which can help ease the stress of bedwetting.