My 5-Year-Old Still Wears Pull-Ups & No, I Don't Care What You Think About It

Google "My five-year-old is in pull-ups," and you'll hit pages and pages of results from worried parents. Clearly, my kid is in good company.


Little Hawk (not his real name, because the Internet never dies) is 5. He wears a pull-up to bed every night. Sometimes he forgets to put one on, and he stays dry. But sometimes he forgets, and he wets the bed -- usually my bed, because he likes to creep in there in the middle of the night. We throw down a towel and I can take care of the pee in the morning. But Hawk is mortified. He cries. We end up having to comfort him, in addition to digging up clean pajamas and a pull-up, fumbling for light switches and small limbs in the middle of the witching hour. When he wears a pull-up, none of this happens. He's not humiliated. 

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I know there's plenty of judgment for a 5-year-old who doesn't stay dry at night –- and for his mom. "Just because you don't want to do some extra laundry or change the bedding you use pull-ups," says a commenter named Beth in response to a mom's question about pull-ups on Circle of Moms. "To me that's just giving them the excuse not to get up and go potty. Instead of using pull-ups, you should let your kids wake up wet, and cry: Just say calmly to them that you understand that that feels really icky and get them changed and back in bed."

In other words, let them suffer the consequences.

On the same page, a mom who's struggling with her daughter's bed-wetting says, "I try to have her stop drinking at a certain point." Another mom agrees: "I don't let my little boy have anything for two hours before bedtime."

Letting my child soil himself and telling him it "feels icky" is shaming him, and that's not the way I choose to parent. I know withholding liquids is a popular way to keep kids dry at night, but to me, it feels abusive not to make liquid available to a child at all times, even if the intent is prevention, not punishment. I refuse to believe that pull-ups, in Beth's words, give Hawk the "excuse" not to get up and go potty. I refuse to believe that pull-ups make him lazy, and he'd rather wet himself than use the toilet. I didn't think he was lazy when he potty-trained at 3½ instead of a more common before-3. And just as I didn't think he needed to be punished when he was 3 and couldn't use the potty, I don't think he needs to be punished now that he's 5 and can't hold his urine at night.

Doctors support me on this. Anthony Paediatrics, the website of English pediatrician Anthony Cohn, who's written a book on "soiling and wetting," says that "being dry at night is a developmental achievement." He even recommends against star charts, which he says associate staying dry with being "good" and wetting the bed with being "naughty." Such charts "are really just taunting the child," he adds.

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Hawk isn’t alone. According to Anthony Paediatrics, 16.7 percent of 6-year-olds wet the bed, 10 percent of 7-year-olds, and 6.7 percent of 10-year-olds. But 95 percent of chronic bed wetters will be dry by the time they're 18.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence says bed-wetting is normal up to 5 years and "is common up to 10 years." It's also more common in children with developmental disorders -- even mild "behavioral disorders such as hyperactivity or inattention deficits." Hawk has a mild case of AD/HD, with an emphasis on inattention; it would be hard for him to escape it, with two parents and a sibling who also have it. If the bed-wetting persists, will I investigate some of the other causes, including sleep apnea (Hawk snores) and constipation? Absolutely. But mostly, I think, his body simply isn't ready.

I'm not the only mama thinking this way. On Mamapedia, user N.G. writes that her daughter "was in pull-ups at night until she was almost 6 ... 5 is not too old to be peeing during the night!" On the same site, user J.M. agrees. "It's very often a developmental issue, so don't push it. No punishments, or lectures. She will get there. I was 5, my brothers much older."

One of my best friend's sons wore pull-ups when he was 5. She says, "Nighttime potty training isn't a behavior-related skill but is related to physical development, which neither my son nor I have control over."

And The Dry Night: Advice for Parents Whose Children Wet the Bed, written by the Australian Department of Health and Ageing, asserts that bed-wetting in a child who has never been dry is not caused by "laziness or rebelliousness."

So my kid's going to keep wearing his pull-ups, thanks. We're cool with that. At some point in the future, if he still needs them, we'll get an evaluation. And if that's clear, maybe we'll look into a bed alarm, which goes off when pee hits the mattress -- waking the child to use the toilet. Until then, to me, the biggest problem with pull-ups is remembering to pick the damn things up at Target. They aren't a cause to shame my son. We won't restrict his ability to drink, make star charts he can't live up to, or harass him. His bladder will grow up with the rest of him, in its own time.  

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