Every so often I hear from a Scouter or parent about a Scout who has a problem with bedwetting.
It goes without saying that I am not a medical expert, but I did a little research and several sources agree an estimated 3.75 -5.25 million boys (and a smaller number of girls) in the United States have a medical condition known as nocturnal enuresis (NE) or involuntary urination during sleep, commonly called bedwetting.
At those numbers NE is one of the most common pediatric health issues. Once considered a psychological problem NE is most likely caused by a developmental delay in the bladder that children eventually outgrow. While disease is rarely the culprit a number of other factors may cause or aggravate NE. Most experts advise parents to simply wait out the problem. Nearly everyone with NE eventually outgrows it, even without treatment.
A change in routine (like going to camp) could trigger an unexpected episode in a child with NE who has had a long stretch of dry nights. As you may imagine, this could be scary or discouraging, but we should all understand this is normal. Routines effective at home like limiting beverages at night, limiting caffeine, going to the toilet twice before bed, may be hard to follow at camp. A long, active day in camp may cause deeper than usual sleep and a Scout may not wake up quite so easily to the sensation of a full bladder.
What’s important is the understanding NE is not a lack of willpower, or a personality flaw, it’s a common physical condition that isn’t within the child’s control. The only real harm that can come from NE is how we characterize the problem and our reactions.
If one of our Scouts had a broken arm or leg, or a physical disability we’d make adjustments so the Scout could participate, we’d encourage their fellow Scouts to be understanding and accommodating – we’d encourage empathy. If we take the time to understand NE and help our Scouts understand it we defuse the possibility of stigmatizing shame.
Here’s the story of a Scout with NE and how the condition was resolved at summer camp. (I found this story online, and have edited here for clarity and length.)
Many years ago I was an eleven-year-old boy with NE eager to go to Boy Scout camp for my first week. I had not had a problem recently, but I was still worried. The first night at camp I had an accident, and several nights later it happened again. I told no one. At the end of the week (for obvious reasons) my Scoutmaster asked about my sleeping bag. He wanted to make sure I knew he understood, it was not a problem and other campers had the same challenge.
I had few accidents the year I turned 12, and I was eager to go to Scout camp that summer. Before I did my parents told me they discussed my NE with the Scoutmaster, and had agreed on a plan. I was a little dubious about this, but before she left me at camp my mother quietly told me she had packed some special protection in my bag I was to wear each night.
Once my parents left my Scoutmaster told me that I would share a tent with a Scout who had the same challenge. The other boy and I grabbed our bags, went to our tent, and once inside the Scoutmaster asked us to take what our mothers had packed for us. We unpacked, and shared the mutual dejection of finding three pairs of plastic under shorts in each of our bags. Both of us just kind of went “you too?”
That night the Scoutmaster reminded us privately to put on our shorts over our underwear. It was embarrassing at first, but being with another boy who had the same challenge was comforting. Neither of us liked the shorts, but we agreed they might make camp better. We both went to the showers every morning. If we had an accident rinsing our underwear and the shorts in the enclosed stalls was no big deal. Our Scoutmaster left a bag in our tent for our rinsed-out underwear and plastic shorts and he causally picked it up each day and laundered the contents.
My tent buddy and I had a great week. When my parents picked me up I told them I appreciated the shorts, and wore them for the next several months at home.
I was almost 14 by the time summer camp came around the next year. My previous tent buddy wasn’t with us, and my Scoutmaster talked privately with me as he had before. I told him I had brought my shorts. I changed in the bathroom before going to bed, rinsed them in the morning if needed, put them in the bag, and dropped it into the Scoutmaster’s tent. I had a few accidents that week but was very glad I had my plastic shorts and no one ever said anything (I still think they did not know).
The following year my accidents dropped off and I stopped wearing the shorts about 2 months before summer camp. I still took them to summer camp to be on the safe side. I only had one accident that week. Although I had no accidents after that I did pack those shorts up to my final Scout camp when I was 16.
I think we all admire the approach the Scoutmaster took, and the work he did to help those Scouts. The story above happened before disposable underwear for older children was commonly available, or NE was so openly discussed, so our approach to the problem would, hopefully, be even simpler today.
I’d imagine that parents of children with NE are way ahead of me, but here’s some links for all Scouters so we can all be aware of the number of resources and products available.
If you have a story to tell, or a question about how to help Scouts with NE, feel free to leave a comment below or contact me.
Thanks to Scouter Carroll, pediatrician, wife of an Eagle Scout, and mother of an Eagle Scout, who advised me on this post!