In the fall of 2020 my wife and I decided to potty train our 2 year old. For the previous few months he’d been waking up every morning with a dry diaper. Since he was already dry at night, I figured he was ready and my wife agreed.
Things went pretty well. Maybe once a week during the day he'd have an accident, on the whole up picked it up quite nicely.
One day in mid February we woke up to him having wet the bed. We chalked it up to a fluke, but then one week later he had two wet nights. By early March he was wetting the bed every night.
I was not happy. Growing up, neither I nor my siblings really had an issue staying dry at night, so it always seemed like a thing that happened to “other” families and then only rarely. Suddenly here I was with a "bed wetter".
So, fun fact about me, I do hypnosis. In 2015 I did a 7 day hypnosis training and have been using it regularly ever since. Then in 2019 I spent a long weekend training in medical hypnosis with the National Pediatric Hypnosis Training Institute (NPHTI). We learned all about using hypnosis with kids in a medical setting for things such as pain, anxiety, asthma, and …. bed wetting.
With all I knew, I thought I might be able to fix this bedwetting problem. Now technically bed wetting is developmentally appropriate until age 5-6. It’s only after then that you should seek medical help.
That didn’t make sense to me. My son was already dry for months, so why wait? I started using the methods I'd learned at the conference. When it comes to hypnosis with kids the big idea is that they're sort of always in hypnosis. You don't need to do a formal induction, you can just jump in. You just give age appropriate suggestions through play and within two weeks they have their first dry bed and then it should snow ball from there. At least that's how it's supposed to work.
One of the things I tried with my kid was have him directly talk to his penis and tell his penis to hold the pee. Another thing I did was have my son draw a picture of his body with a little light switch. Then I had him close his eyes and imagine turning the light switch off, and turning his penis off so the pee would stay in his body.
It didn't work. My son loved all the playing and drawing together but he kept wetting the bed.
Then we switched to behavioral methods. We got a fancy PJ Masks calendar and gave him stickers for waking up with dry bed. We limited liquids an hour before bedtime and had him pee before bed.
Nothing. I would get up at 2am to make him do a "midnight pee," and we'd still wake up in the morning with a soaked bed.
We took him to the doctor and had him tested for a UTI. We got him an x-ray to see if he was constipated. At the doctor's advice we took him off dairy. Did any of it help? Nope.
It was incredibly frustrating to work so hard and still make no progress. It really hit a button for me. See, if you read the early family therapy literature, they cut their teeth on fixing problems like bedwetting. Jay Haley and Milton Erickson in particular talk extensively about doing some brilliant intervention to fix some kids' bedwetting. And modern teachers like Daniel Kohen M.D., who I'd studied with through NPHTI, regularly talk about bedwetting as though it's relatively easy to treat. At that time I was also still struggling with my role as a therapist. So often our best efforts as therapists fail. This was supposed be an easy problem and I was just as helpless to do anything. I felt like a fraud as a therapist.
Then one day in May I saw him watch TV. His favorite show at the time was Super Wings. When my kid watches TV he gets super into it. Just entranced. I knew from my hypnosis studies that he was basically in a form of TV induced hypnosis, so on a whim, almost as a joke, I said "and you can wake up tomorrow with a dry bed.”
The next morning his bed was dry.
So, then I did it again. Later that day when he was watching his show I said, "and you can wake up tomorrow with a dry bed." He woke up the next day with another dry bed!
Then I did it again, and he wet the bed. So I decided to be systematic. Every night before getting ready for bed we would sit down as father and son and watch Super Wings and I’d give him suggestions to have a dry bed in the morning.
And he started to rack up stickers!
Now, it wasn’t every night. About once or twice a week he’d wake up wet, and if there was any change to his schedule, say we took a family trip, there was 50/50 chance he'd wet the bed. Still it was a vast improvement.
At this point I knew it was only a matter of time. Long time readers of this blog will know I’ve spent years studying the learning process. Because of that I knew that with enough practice he’d eventually burn dry beds back into his sleeping habits. So we did it every night. Eventually we got to the point where instead of watching a 12 minute Super Wings episode we could watch a 3 minute letter video and still give suggestions. My favorite was the J letter song.
All in all, we probably started in mid-May and he was completely dry again by late July/early August. From start to finish it took ≈3.5 months of daily work. Since then he hasn't had any nighttime problems.
All in all it ended well.
A few thoughts.
As I've reflected on the experience, it's left me with a lot of questions about hypnosis, therapy, and change.
First, this story might read like a clever therapy story. You know, where the clever therapist figures out just the right thing to say, just the right metaphor to give, at just the right time, that induces some dramatic change into the client's life.
Maybe it is a clever therapy story. Maybe it's not. I don't know.
I know for myself I'd studied hypnosis for 9 years at that point and I literally threw everything I had at this problem. With all the experience and training I've had, and with a story like this, I could market myself as a bedwetting guru, but I'm not confident I could do it again. My now youngest child is 2 and is clearly ready for potty training. So we'll see.
I do know that this whole experience was a classic example of my experience being a therapist. You read the books. You go to the trainings. You talk to the gurus and it all seems so easy. And then real life hits and the only effect you can reliably produce is making people feel heard and seen. Some of that is your skill level, some of that is the client's readiness to absorb what you offer, and some of it is gurus overselling their success.
Also, I knew my kid could have dry beds. My assessments are always based on past behavior. Because he'd had dry beds, I knew it was possible. Once he'd had one dry bed during TV hypnosis, I knew he'd have another. Because it worked once so I knew it would work again. I also knew that once he did it several times in a row it would stick and become his new normal. That's just how learning works. Though I didn't know how long we'd have to do TV hypnosis, I knew that it was inevitable that eventually it would stick.
Second, when it comes to concrete problems I'm often surprised by people's complacency. I remember telling one colleague about the TV hypnosis and she gawked “you have to do that every night?” Like it was some huge burden. (As though having to do laundry and wiping down a bed and change clothes every morning isn’t a hassle?) In the past I've seen clients with things that felt like concrete mind-body problems, and you know, rarely did they want help with those problems. Now, part of that could have been how I was marketed, so they may have had different expectations about therapy than I did. Still, I'm always shocked at the number of people who don't want a problem fixed. A lot, not all, but a lot, of people just want to be heard.
Third, this whole experience has given me much more compassion for bedwetting. It's a pretty common problem and sometimes we just don't have the energy to deal with it. Between sleep issues, picking eating, dealing with other kids, and other problems we can't always devote the time to addressing specific problems with kids. So, while I challenge the idea "nothing can be done," I totally support people who say "I just can't spend the time and energy right now." Kids are hard.
Fourth, sometimes kids just throw screws. I believe parents have a role in their kids' development. And sometimes, kids just throw screws. Something works for a long time and then something happens to kids that we don't understand. It happens. We as parents have to go easy on ourselves. I've seen parents who beat themselves up for their kid being in and out of drug rehabs or some other problem. And of course. It's your kid. You wish things were different. And sometimes, kids just throw screws.
Fifth, TV is trance inducing, especially for little kids. Which means that when kids are watching TV all of that stuff is just pouring straight into their unconscious. That seems problematic. The year I went to NPHTI the keynote speaker was Tobi Goldfus. She literally wrote the book on how social media is a form of hypnosis. I agree with her. All of these things are basically programming our unconscious. Are we programming it the way we want?
I have no grand conclusions. This whole incident has left me with a lot of questions that I'm still trying to puzzle out. If there is one thing I would leave you with it's that it's okay to not have all the answers. Therapy is a field which often proports to have answers, but there's a lot we don't know. As a field we'd do a lot of good to acknowledge that we don't know as much as we think we do.