Myths about bedwetting? There are several, and they aren’t helpful.
Ever heard the claim that kids wet the bed out of laziness?
Or that kids require counseling — talking therapy — in order to break the “habit?”
Or how about the idea that wetting the bed is a sign of psychopathology?
If you know a child who wets the bed, pass the message along. The following claims about wetting the bed (also known as “nocturnal enuresis”) have been debunked.
Reality: As I note in my my evidence-based guide to bedwetting, up to 20% of five-year-olds have yet to achieve night-time dryness, and many school-age children suffer from the problem as well. Bedwetting in young children is common.
Reality: Bedwetting occurs during sleep, and research suggests that kids who wet the bed are physiologically different.
These children may have more difficulty awakening at night in response to the signal of a full bladder (Nevéus 2017).
In addition, their bodies may produce less vasopressin, a hormone that suppresses the production of urine (Doscche et al 2016).
These traits may have a genetic basis, which would explain why nocturnal enuresis seems to run in families.
For the details, see my guide to bedwetting.
Reality: It’s true that bedwetting is sometimes associated with stress. And kids with certain behavior problems are more likely to experience bedwetting.
But does a child’s failure to awaken before urinating indicate that he or she is psychologically disturbed? No.
This false claim might have originated with Sigmund Freud, who thought urination was erotic and that wetting the bed was a frustrated sexual act.
Later, in the 1960s, psychiatrist J. M. Macdonald proposed that bedwetting past the age of 5, along with animal cruelty and arson, was a sign that a child was at risk for becoming a violent sociopath (MacDonald 1963).
MacDonald’s theory was that these three behaviors, occurring together, indicate that a child is under substantial stress. And severe childhood stress makes kids more likely to become violent criminals.
Does it sound plausible? Maybe. But the evidence isn’t supportive.
Yes, there is a link between bedwetting and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Children who have been diagnosed with ADHD are more likely to experience bedwetting (Mahjani et al 2021).
In addition, there is evidence supporting the idea that bedwetters are more likely than non-bedwetters to suffer from disruptive behavior disorders (Niemczyk et al 2015; Park et al 2013).
But most children who experience bedwetting don’t have these behavior problems.
And it doesn’t appear that these kids are at higher risk for serious emotional problems, like depression or clinical anxiety (Wille and Anveden 1995; Shreeham et al 2009; Sureshkumar et al 2009).
Mostly what I’ve found are studies indicating that children suffer from lower self-esteem, which makes sense, given the social stigma associating with wetting the bed (Wille and Anveden 1995; Longstaffe et al 2000; Shreeham et al 2009; Sureshkumar et al 2009; Phung et al 2015).
The bottom line?
Modern psychologists have rejected the hypothesis that wetting the bed is a red flag for future violent behavior.
As forensic psychologists note, “bedwetting is neither violent nor voluntary” and there is “little or no empirical support” linking it with psychological maladjustment (Parfitt and Alleyne 2018).
Reality: Some kids who wet the bed are also distressed. But their psychological problems aren’t necessarily preventing them from getting dry, and successful treatment of their bed wetting symptoms may improve their psychological problems.
In a study of children suffering from both psychological problems and nocturnal enuresis, researchers successfully treated the bedwetting problem first (HiraSing et al 2009). Not only did most kids become dry, they also showed less psychological distress after treatment for bedwetting.
Reality: It might seem plausible. If kids practice “holding it in,” they might expand their bladder capacity. And a larger bladder capacity might permit kids to go longer at night without having to relieve themselves.
However, based on the studies I’ve found, it’s not clear if this approach makes much difference. In controlled experiments, researchers randomly assigned some kids with nocturnal enuresis to practice “holding it in.” Although the treatment did increase the children’s bladder capacities, it wasn’t associated with substantial reductions in bedwetting (Van Hoeck et al 2008; Van Hoeck et al 2007).
Reality: In many cases — especially in cases where kids have no other symptoms — kids do usually grow out of it (Jain and Bhatt 2016). But these children may nevertheless benefit from therapies. And other children may have problems that require intervention.
Sometimes bedwetting is related to treatable medical conditions, like constipation, urinary tract infections, allergies, sleep-disordered breathing (snoring) and sleep apnea (Hsiao et al 2020; Lin et al 2013; Kaya et al 2018; Sun et al 2019; Nevéus et al 2020).
So if your child is wetting bed, it’s wise to consult with your doctor and have your child screened for underlying medical problems. This is particularly important if your child has suddenly become incontinent after going for at least 6 months without wetting the bed.
Interested in treatment options? Punishment is a bad approach. Offering rewards might be a poor option, too.
Your pediatrician might prescribe medication, but behavioral methods can be even more effective. For more information, check out the Parenting Science guide to the research about kids who wet the bed.
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Content last modified 4/2021
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