Enuresis, also known as “urinary incontinence” or “bedwetting,” can be extremely distressing for both parents and children. It can lead to lower self-esteem in children, frustration among caregivers, and disruptions in sleep for both.
Enuresis is a common problem in the United States with approximately 5 million children affected, with boys experiencing it three times more often than girls do. Enuresis can run in families — often times a parent will come to the office and say that he or she also “wet the bed” when younger. In most children, it will resolve by the age of 6 years. When it persists much past that age, particularly when a child begins sleeping outside the home, at sleepovers, is typically when it becomes most distressing.
There are some known risk factors for enuresis. One of the most common ones is dysfunctional elimination syndrome. This syndrome represents a collection of abnormal urinary patterns associated with constipation. For example, it can mean your child is holding his or her urine for too long and overstretching the bladder, or having difficulty relaxing the bladder outlet during urination, straining the muscle. Other risk factors for enuresis are breathing problems such as sleep apnea, or neuropsychiatric disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or anxiety. Constipation and sleep apnea should be treated by your child’s pediatrician or another specialist. Children with ADHD should be reminded to empty their bladders every few hours.
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Enuresis can happen during the daytime, but it is more common overnight. There are two forms of enuresis, primary and secondary. Primary enuresis is more common and means that your child has never been completely dry. It can be caused by making large volumes of urine overnight, having a bladder that does not relax properly to fill and store urine, and lower than normal levels of a hormone which causes water retention by the kidney. With secondary enuresis, your child was previously dry for a period of at least six months and is now experiencing symptoms. Causes include bladder infections, things that cause large volumes of urine such as diabetes, and emotional stress or trauma in a child’s life such as a family divorce, bullying at school or the loss of a beloved pet.
If your child is experiencing enuresis, see your pediatrician first. He or she can likely make the diagnosis with a simple history and physical examination. In addition, your pediatrician may want to screen your child’s urine for infection or excess glucose. Imaging studies are rarely needed to make the diagnosis.
Most parents recognize enuresis but don’t know what to do to treat it. Parents should understand the natural history of the problem — that it’s developmentally appropriate in young children, and that most children will “grow out of it.” If enuresis is a stressful problem in your household, here are some of the available treatments to discuss with your pediatrician:
- Minimize the amount of fluids your child drinks after dinnertime.
- Encourage your child to empty the bladder regularly during the day and before bedtime.
- Treat constipation aggressively with laxatives such as polyethylene glycol. Stool should be soft like a banana and come every one to two days.
- Some families find success using a bedwetting alarm: a device which is placed in the child’s bed and will activate if it becomes wet. This type of device is used every night and improves arousal from overnight bladder filling and storage of urine, through repeated conditioning.
- There are also formal programs developed by pediatric psychologists that use behavioral therapy and positive reinforcement —often in conjunction with bedwetting alarms. These programs are more successful when implemented consistently.
- If your child is over the age of 6, your pediatrician may refer you to a specialist with advanced knowledge in medications to treat incontinence such as a nephrologist or urologist. These specialists can prescribe medications which are taken every night to help keep your child dry. These medications do not cure the problem, but they help control the symptoms. One type of medicine called desmopressin leads to decreased urine in the bladder, another type called imipramine causes the bladder to retain urine overnight, and still another called oxybutynin relaxes the bladder muscles allowing it to fill more normally and empty completely with regular voiding. These medicines are often successful.
What can you do for your older child in the short term who wants to stay at a friend’s house without suffering embarrassment? One suggestion is to send your child with a pull up inside of his or her sleeping bag. This technique offers a little more housework for a parent, but allows your child not to miss out on fun with friends. Finally, a closing note — if your child or your family dynamic is suffering from incontinence, we can offer hope — 99 percent of cases spontaneously resolve without the use of medications.