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The Shame of Wearing Diapers to Bed, by Colin Ellison

Here is an excerpt from an article entitled Nocturnal Enuresis: The Stigma of Wearing Protection to Bed, contributed by Colin Ellison

The Shame of Wearing Diapers to Bed: 

     As I mentioned in the introduction , the shame of using diapers for bedwetting is ubiquitous and longstanding which is unfortunate and completely unwarranted in my opinion. The children and teenagers who wear diapers for bedwetting are ostracized and ridiculed by their peers. Additionally, parents who consider putting an older bedwetting child or teenager in diapers are admonished by the public, medical professionals, and parenting experts. This stigma is so endemic and severe that I predict in the not-too-distant future those youngsters who do need to wear diapers for bedwetting are going to be treated similarly to Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, except instead of having to wear an 'A' in public, they'll be forced to wear a 'D' while they're in public, displayed prominently on their clothing. Additionally, those adults who need to wear diapers to bed will also be required to wear a 'D' on their clothing when in public.

     In researching how widespread this stigma is, I've come across numerous newspaper columns where the aforementioned groups have expressed their dismay of having an older child, teenager, or adult wear diapers to bed.  Several of these remarks, taken from various newspapers over the years, are flagrant examples of how callous and ill-informed people can be about this problem ‒ “No woman wants to sleep with someone wearing  diapers.”, “Granddaughter, 10, should not be wearing diapers.”, “Is he still going to be wearing diapers to bed when he's in high school?”, “By putting a kid in a diaper, you're treating them like a baby, and they realize that.”, “You are correct that using diapers in [sic] a bedwetting 12 year old girl is infantilizing”, “Keeping him in a diaper is embarrassing and hurtful to his self-esteem.”  One author had this to say: “I've known parents who have kept their children in diapers at night as late as 7, 8, 9, and even 12 years old but wearing diapers makes a child feel like a baby.”

      In addition to these comments, there were three columns that stuck out in my mind as being particularly egregious examples of how this attitude manifests itself and how it can have devastating effects on a child's self-esteem. In one column a woman wrote in because she was considering purchasing diapers for her 12 year old step daughter with a bedwetting problem and some people were outraged that she'd even consider this. Here are the responses: “I am amazed that a grown woman would consider putting an adolescent in diapers!”, “Please do not use a diaper on your 12 year old daughter. That would be terribly humiliating for her.” Finally, one reader wrote the following: “I beg you not to resort to a diaper on a 12 year old. She's bound to see this as embarrassing, demeaning, and a punishment.”   

       The second column dealt with a 13 year old girl who was mortified that she and her sisters had to wear diapers and plastic pants to manage their bedwetting. Here  is what she had to say: “I am one of three girls in our family with a bedwetting problem. Our parents insist that any child who wets the bed must remain in both diapers and plastic pants until they are able to remain dry for at least a week. I am 13 and feel I am too old to still be in diapers. My two sisters are seven and 10 years of age and are also too old for diapers. Mom insists that it is not uncommon for girls our age to wear diapers when a bedwetting problem is present. I doubt there are any other girls my age who have to wear them and I am hoping someone will stick up for me.” Here's one reader's response:  “I'm outraged at what your parents are making you wear diapers. To think that making you wear a diaper all these years is just adding to what I consider serveral mental anguish.” [sic]  As a result of this negative press, most individuals lament the use of diapers to cope with their bedweting. What this poor child did not realize is that her mother was right – even though many people may look askance at an older child wearing a diaper, or their parents who have them wear diapers, wearing them is a lot more common than thought. It's just not discussed much because wearing diapers beyond a certain age is considered taboo by the majority of the public.

    After reading what this girl said, I find it necessary to touch on a very important point. She said her parents insisted on them wearing the diapers and plastic pants to bed, indicating that her parents had a very authoritarian attitude in the manner and were possibly using the diapers and plastic pants as a form of punishment. I find this practice reprehensible, and while I strongly support parents decisions to use diapers on a youngster that wets the bed, parents should not use them in a punitive manner. Unfortunately, I've read about cases where parents have used diapers to punish and/or humiliate their youngster. This is a terrible thing to do to a child or teenager and can have long-lasting psychological repercussions.  

     I have read about other youngsters her age and older who were also embarrassed about wearing diapers to bed. In a book of “Ask Judy” columns written by Judy Blume, in a section called “Embarrassing Problems”, one 14 year old boy who was going to enter high school the following fall said that he wets the bed and when he goes away on sleepovers he has to “swallow his pride and wear two diapers and a pair of rubber pants.”

     The third column had a question sent in from a mother with two sons – one 12 and one 8 – who wet the bed. Here's what she had to say regarding the situation: “This isn't a significant issue in our family since their father wet the bed until he was 14 and his brother – their uncle – was 10 before he quit. They had my husband and his brother wear diapers and rubber pants at night and now my husband wants our boys to do the same thing when we visit the boys grandmother and great aunt.” The father thought it would be easier for everyone if they agreed to wear protection, but the mother felt that he should stand up to his relatives and tell them they'd take care of the wet bedding. Here's how the parenting expert in this column responded: “You and your husband have handled the bedwetting problem so well; don't spoil it now. It's a matter of finding the solution that will embarrass them the least and still consider the sensibilities of your in-laws. Older people are inclined to be more fussy than they were when they were young, and these folks must have been pretty fussy even then or they wouldn't have made their children wear diapers.”  

     It's my hope I can be a source of inspiration, encouragement, and comfort  to those children, teenagers, and adults who feel humiliated about the situation and are having difficulty adjusting to wearing protection to bed. I think it's unfortunate that this attitude is so pervasive and people feel so embarrassed about using a garment that is beneficial for managing this problem, and in the long run can help them cope more effectively with this condition. In my opinion we make too big a deal of this, and to a large extent this is simply a matter of common sense – for example, we use diapers on babies because they have no control over the functioning of their bladder, why should this change just because people get older? If you still have the same problem,  it should be dealt with the same way it is with infants – by using a diaper. My attitude regarding using diapers for bedwetting can be summed up in a very simple manner – if you need them, you need them. Period.

     On a positive note, there are children who see the merits of wearing diapers to bed for a bedwetting problem.  For example, in an “Ask Beth” column, the childcare expert Elizabeth Winship had a boy who was about to turn 11 write in about his bedwetting and his use of diapers and rubber pants to manage the problem: “I told my mom I should try diapers so she got me some” and “They make me feel comfortable and secure.”

     Another woman  talked about what she felt were the advantages of wearing diapers and plastic pants to manage her bedwetting when she was growing up. One advantage was that she woke up in a dry bed “which is much more comfortable than a wet bed”, also because she wore diapers there was no need to cover the bed with a plastic sheet, thereby allowing her to be discreet about the problem – by sitting on the bed her friends would notice the crinkling sound the plastic makes when sat on and wearing diapers allowed her to avoid this possibility, the third benefit she mentions of wearing the diapers and plastic pants to bed is the elimination of odors -  “Since your bed stays dry, you don't have to worry about an odor staying in your bedroom all the time.”

    She went on to say: “I know this from personal experience. I wet the bed until I was 14. Because my parents told me that using a diaper was for convenience and not for punishment, I never felt that I was being treated as a “baby” for my problem.” In the column she also talked about her 13 year old daughter who  wet the bed and used disposable diapers to deal with the problem: “She's 13 years old and diapers herself every night without prompting. I keep my end of the deal by making sure none of her friends find out about her problem. My daughter knows her bedwetting will end soon. Until then, the discreet use of diapers can make management of this embarrassing problem much easier to handle, for both the parents and child.”

   The pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton also weighed in on this. A reader sent in a question to him about two girls he was babysitting who had to wear diapers and plastic pants to bed. The reader asked Dr. Brazelton if he knew of other kids that had to wear diapers to manage their bedwetting. He had this to say – “I’ve had many children in my practice who were enuretic (bedwetters) who needed to wear diapers.”

     Although some people can be cured of their bedwetting using alarm systems, medications, surgery, and other methods, there are some individuals who wet the bed their entire life. The National Association for Continence (NAFC) outlines many of the reasons for adult bedwetting: spinal cord injuries, obstructive sleep apnea, neurological diseases, stress, genetics, hormone imbalances, small bladder, diabetes, various medications, including psychiatric and insomnia medications, anatomical abnormalities, as well as other causes. “And sometimes”, as the NAFC says, “there can be seemingly no cause at all, which makes it all the more frustrating to address.” As a result there will always be a certain number of individuals who have to wear protection at night their entire life.   

  Here's how one adult describes his experiences and feelings dealing with adult bedwetting, including steps he takes to manage the problem (also taken from the NAFC website): “At night I wear a fitted brief, which is an adult diaper. Initially it was very upsetting, but it gets better with time.Wearing a diaper keeps me dry, my bed dry, my girlfriend dry, and I get a good night’s sleep. It took me a while to get over the hump of accepting that this was what I had to wear to bed, but eventually I got over it. Now it is just a thing I do at night, no different than brushing my teeth and flossing. The best thing to do is accept that you have the condition and take steps to manage it. Look into products like mattress protectors, bed pads or even diapers. I'm 29 and know how frustrating it is. But I've accepted that diapers are my best option for me. Trust me, taking off a wet diaper in the morning is WAY better than having to change and launder sheets and clothes.” Another adult from the NAFC website had the following words of advice: “If your bedwetting is treatable, see the necessary doctors and get it treated. However, if it's chronic and not going to go away, acceptance and management with good diapers are the keys. "Suffering" is optional. I recommend just getting on with your life. Incontinence in general and bedwetting in particular are nuisances that need not ruin your life unless you let them. So don't let them do so.”            

   I'd like to offer my sympathy to those individuals who are denigrated  for wearing diapers to manage their bedwetting. I strongly feel that this way of thinking is antiquated and should have gone the way of the quill pen and horse and buggy – it's taking an unenlightened view of the matter. I can't emphasize this enough – there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. You're taking ownership of the problem and doing what's necessary to manage the issue. Wearing diapers is no different than wearing a cast for a broken arm, eyeglasses, or any other type of medical equipment.  In chapter two, I talk about how parents have traditionally managed their child or teenager's bedwetting including the pluses and minuses of each approach and why wearing diapers to bed might be the best option in some circumstances.