Q&A: nighttime potty-training

I received two questions about preschoolers in diapers at night, so I thought I'd combine them into one post. They've got the same problem but are coming at it from two different angles.

Anna writes:

"My daughter is just over three years old and has been potty trained for about a year.  However, she is still wearing a pull-up at night and most of the time it's wet in the morning.  To date, after making a couple abortive attempts at night-training her, I haven't worried about it too much, but I am getting tired of buying pull-ups.  I guess my question is two-fold, do you think she's ready/able to give up the pull-ups at night?  And, if so, what are your suggestions on how to do so?

Currently, I don't let her drink anything after 6:00 p.m. (her bedtime is about 7:30), and recently we've started getting her up to put on the toilet when we go to bed (10-11:00 p.m.).  She usually pees when we get her up, but her pull-up is still usually wet in the morning (6-6:30 a.m.).  Another thing is that we had a hard time motivating her to potty-train in the daytime last year.  Although she's in daycare, peer pressure had no motivation at all for her, as she's never cared what other kids are doing.  Also, she was in cloth diapers full-time for her first year, and while at home for her second year, and never cared about being in a wet/dirty diaper, she was quite happy to sit in her own mess until I checked her (which of course made me somewhat compulsive).  It wasn't until I put her in underwear (so the pee would actually run down her legs) that it bothered her, and we rewarded her with stickers everytime she went, that we had success."

Suzanne (who blogs in a language that's not her native tongue even, which makes me feel more than a little inadequate) writes:

"I have a question that may be unusual, at least it's something I haven't seen discussed elsewhere. My almost 3.5-year-old is very frustrated, because he's still needing diapers at night. During the day there is no problem, with the exception of minor accidents that happen because he doesn't like to interrupt his play. He has started to go to preschool in February. He loves it, but it's still exiting for him. He's desperate to become a "big boy", and only two or three weeks ago he decided to give up his binky. The binky-weaning was no problem, I had realized that he fell asleep without one on his occasional naps, and asked him if he wanted to try going asleep without one at night as well.

I'd think that the beginning of preschool and the binky-weaning would have been enough for him, but he thinks that he wants to do it all at once. I told him, if he had dry diapers three mornings in a row, he could leave the diapers off at night. I even told him that a) most three-year-olds still wear diapers in the night, even if they tell him otherwise, and b) that this is something he has to grow into, not something to determine by willforce.

He is devastated. Every morning, his diaper is wet. I'm at a loss, because there's nothing I can do to help him, his body's just not ready. Any idea? I'd be happily washing seven diapers a week for the next one or two years, but he wants to grow up fast. It's like when he learned going potty. He started at 18 months to try it, at about 27 months he decided that he didn't want the diapers anymore, but it took him another six months to really get it. (And in between every diaper change became a power struggle.)"

It's interesting to me that Anna, who wants her daughter to be out of diapers at night, and Suzanne, who doesn't want her son out of diapers at night, are both thinking it through and wondering how it can happen since their kids are both still having wet diapers in the morning.

I was at that same point about 4 months after my older son was potty-trained during the day (he was day-trained at 28 months, so it was around 32 months)--wondering how to make the transition to underpants at night, too. What I'd heard was that he had to wake up dry anywhere from 3 to 5 nights in a row before I could take off the diaper at night. He'd go two nights in a row, then pee the third night. Or he'd wake up dry every other night for two weeks. It was starting to make me a little nuts, and I despaired that he'd ever be out of diapers at night.

I was beginning to have the suspicion that he wasn't ever going to just start waking up dry every morning. As I thought about it, it started to make sense that if he was wearing a diaper there was no motivation not to pee at night. There also wasn't much feedback, since even the cloth pull-up type of diaper prevented wet pajama-leg and cold wet sheets. Then I started to think about that adage about dressing for the position you want to have instead of the position you currently have, and wondered if that applied to nighttime potty-training, too. (I think this was while I was in the induction phase of the South Beach Diet, so my mind was going a little loopy from lack of carbs.)

I was almost at the point at which I was going to pick a start date and just go diaper-free at night, when serendipity in the form of bad communication occurred. I thought my husband was going to buy more diapers, and he thought I was going to buy them. So there stood my son after his bath, with no diapers in the house. My husband and I looked at each other and decided that was the night. So we explained to our son that he was a big boy who didn't need diapers at night anymore, and if he had to pee he should wake up and go to the bathroom. If he had an accident and peed in his pajamas he should come and wake us. Then we put the waterproof mattress pad on his bed under the sheet and hoped for the best.

He stayed dry for 2-3 out of every 4 days for those first few weeks. Sometimes we'd hear thump-thump-thump to the bathroom, followed by peeing and flushing, then thump-thump-thump back to his bead. Other nights we'd hear thump-thump-thump over to my husband's side of the bed and a stage-whispered "Daddy! I peed in my pajamas!" We'd change him and the bed and he'd go back to sleep. By the end of the first month he was wetting the bed maybe once a week, and changing his own pajama bottoms and just climbing in with us for the rest of the night. Within a few months he was having an accident maybe once a month, if that.

Now obviously I'm not saying that what happened with my son is going to happen exactly the same way with Anna's daughter and Suzanne's son. But I am saying that I think a parent could wait a looooong time for a kid to wake up dry every night if the kid is wearing diapers to bed. So why not just try going diaper-free for two weeks to see what happens? Pick a date, stock up on waterproof pads and bottom sheets (you can layer them in a little liquid-repellant napoleon so you can just peel off the top layers in the middle of the night), talk it up with your child to get him or her on board, and then just go diaperless on the appointed day.

After two weeks you can see where you are. If your child is waking up dry more nights than not, keep going. If s/he's still wetting the bed most nights, talk about it together. Maybe your child will want more help staying dry (like Anna's idea about waking her daughter up to pee when she and her husband go to bed), or maybe your child will want to go back into diapers for a month or two before trying again.

It's definitely going to make more laundry for you for the first couple of weeks, but it could go so well that your child will be mostly accident-free within a month. You never know if you don't try. And the worst-case scenario is that you wash a bunch of peed-on sheets and still end up back where you are right now. Especially in Suzanne's case, since her son so desperately wants to be out of diapers at night, it seems like it's more painful for him not to be allowed to try than it would be to try and fail, so why not let him try?

Did anyone else just go cold turkey out of diapers at night? If so, how old was your child, and how long did it take to have mostly dry weeks?