Bedwetting, Doctors and the Problematization of Youth in Britain and America, c.1800-1980

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This article traces the evolution of medical ideas about bedwetting. Whereas nineteenth-century doctors saw it as a bad behavioral habit, their twentieth-century counterparts considered it a more problematic condition linked to deeper, psychological problems. Approaches to bedwetting moved away from techniques of habit adjustment and physical interventions toward a deeper assessment of personality and mind. The case study of bedwetting reveals much about how early-twentieth-century medical communities redefined certain types of bodily behavior, reflecting in part contemporary concerns about deviance and youth. Medical professionals were less concerned with the wet bed itself than with the broader implications it raised about childhood abnormality. Even when seemingly beyond the control of a sleeping child, bedwetting was now presented as a somewhat animal-istic, impulsive practice that crossed the threshold of acceptable, modern, civilized behavior. The end result was a way of thinking about the inner body that risked casting the owners of leaky bladders as potential deviants or sexual perverts. The article examines this evolution in two geographical contexts, Britain and America, to shed light on how particular sociocultural contexts shaped ideas about bedwetting.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)761–782
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Social History
Issue number3
Early online date11 Sept 2017
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 1 Mar 2019


  • history of bladders
  • history of bedwetting
  • history of American and British youth
  • history of the body
  • history of deviance


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