Bedwetting (Enuresis)

by Tina Blue
November 22, 2000

Most parents, or at least most parents who take the time to read articles about parenting, are now enlightened enough to understand that bedwetting is not a discipline problem--and usually it is not a psychological problem, either, unless the issue is mishandled by the parents so that it becomes a psychological problem.

Bedwetting (enuresis) is far more common in boys than in girls, and in fact approximately one-third of all boys wet the bed for several years after they have been completely potty-trained. In fact, a substantial number of boys continue to have occasional episodes of enuresis until they reach puberty, usually around twelve years of age.

Children who suffer from night terrors as infants are more likely to become bedwetters, and the root causes of both conditions are probably closely related. Night terrors are quite different from nightmares. An infant suffering a night-terror episode will cry hard, but when the parent attempts to wake him, he will not awaken, but continue to cry. After several attempts, the parent may finally be able to awaken the child, but it is not easy to do so. After being awakened, the infant will usually go right back to sleep as if nothing has happened (but the parent may find that going back to sleep is not so easy).

More boy babies than girls suffer from night terrors, but almost all children outgrow such episodes by the time they are walking.

Researchers believe night terrors are in some way related to glitches caused by neurological immaturity, which would explain why the infant outgrows night terrors as he matures neurologically. It is generally believed that bedwetting is similarly caused by a neurological system that has not matured as rapidly as the rest of the body has. A child who wets the bed is normally one who does not awaken to his body's signals that his bladder is full. In fact, many bedwetters do not awaken even after releasing their urine, so that they are as surprised as they are dismayed to find out the next morning that they have wet themselves.

It is this deep sleep pattern, one wherein the individual does not awaken easily to stimuli that would waken almost anyone else, that enuresis shares with night terrors. Often monitors and gentle alarms that awaken the sleeping child at the first sign of wetness can actually condition his body to respond to the initial wetness and to wake up before the urine is fully released. Thus, over time, the child is operationally conditioned to respond to the subtle physiological signals that are precursors to the first wetness of enuresis, and to awaken in time to avoid the episode altogether.

But the child who suffers from enuresis still has to deal with the embarrassment it causes. Remember, these kids are between four and twelve years of age--quite old enough to feel the pressure of society's expectations. Even if the parent is kind about it, the child will still feel embarrassed. And since most of these children are boys, the need to feel grown up and act like a man adds extra pressure.

During my eighteen years as a daycare provider, I often had to deal with the embarrassment of bedwetting boys. I found that telling them how many men had that problem as children helps, but only some. However, I have a number of adult male friends who were very much liked and admired by the kids in my daycare. One day, four of them were visiting us (they liked playing with the kids). There was an eight-year-old boy in the daycare who had had an embarrassing episode earlier that week when he fell asleep on the couch after school. All the other kids knew about the incident, of course, and the little boy was still uncomfortable around his friends because of it.

One of the girls could hardly wait to tell my friends that X had wet himself on the couch. I immediately said, "Yes, but do you know that one-third of all men were bedwetters as children? That means that in any group of men, a significant number of them will have been bedwetters!"

All four of my friend responded to my remark with a version of one of the following comments: "I was a bed wetter"; "So was I"; "Me, too." Great averages!--not one or two, but all four admitted to having wet the bed as children! From that time on, my young friend accepted that his problem was temporary, and that it was nothing to be ashamed of. He wasn't happy about it, of course, but he no longer felt like crawling into a hole every time he had an accident.

If your son wets the bed, chances are pretty good that his father did, too, or that one or more of your male relatives did. There is a genetic component to enuresis, so it tends to run in families. If you have an adult male friend or relative who is man enough to tell your little boy that he too had that problem as a child, then chances are very good that a lot of the emotional baggage that can get attached to enuresis will be avoided altogether, or at least mitigated.

Unfortunately, the person who is hardest on the little boy who wets his bed is all too often his father, who was quite likely a bedwetter himself. That is why anyone who knows a child with this problem needs to stand up for him and to make an effort to enlighten those who would shame him him for something that really is beyond his control.
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