Many parents are alarmed to find their young child engaged in genital stimulation. It can feel as though part of the child’s innocence is lost. However, in young children, genital stimulation is not associated with sexual activity. Genital stimulation can take the form of rubbing with hands or rubbing against other objects such as a pillow, stuffed animal or the bed. Exploring his or her genitals provides a feeling of pleasure, that once discovered, the child will most likely repeat.
Children should never be punished or shamed for playing with their genitals, as this can have major effects on their self-esteem and comfort with sexual activity as adults.
At what age is masturbation normal?
Babies often tug on their genitals, just as they tug on their toes or ears.
Boys often find their penises accidentally, possibly during a diaper change around six to seven months of age and become curious (just like their fascination with other parts of their bodies, such as fingers, toes and ears).
Girls often don’t discover their vulva (female external genitalia) until about ten to eleven months of age.
Potty training can be another time when there is curiosity about the genital area. Boys will play with their penises. Girls may even insert things into their vaginas.
How common is masturbation in children?
Most children—both boys and girls—play with their external sex organs or “private parts” fairly regularly by the age of 5-6 years. By age 15, almost 100% of boys and 25% of girls have masturbated to the point of orgasm.
Again, it is important to remember that children do not generally associate this activity with sexuality or adult relationships until closer to puberty. Genital play is often used simply as a form of self-comfort.
Should I be alarmed by my child’s masturbation?
Most often, genital stimulation is a normal part of childhood development. There are some cases, however, when it may be a signal for something more concerning. In these cases, you should discuss your concerns with your pediatrician:
- If the child seems to have an early understanding of the two-sidedness of the sex act.
- If the activity becomes compulsive and interferes with other normal activities or the child cannot be distracted easily from the genital stimulation.
- If the child simulates intercourse with another child.
- If any penetration with another child is involved.
- If the activity is intrusive or painful for the child.
- If the activity increases much above the original level, indicating the child is stressed about something and is trying to comfort themselves.
- If there is mouth to genital contact between your child and another child.
- If you feel your child is particularly unhappy or sad.
- If it seems to be accompanied by trauma to the area from scratching or rubbing.
If genital play becomes a time consuming activity for your child, look for possible underlying reasons. Is your child stressed and in extra need of comfort? Or are they stressed and need time to be calm? Is your child bored? Is the behavior being reinforced by adults over-reacting to activity? If any of these seem to be the case, the underlying reason should be addressed.
Playing with genitals in public
Toddlers and preschoolers do not really understand the social implications of genital stimulation, because, as noted earlier, they don’t associate it with private behaviors that occur between adults. To them, it may be no different than playing with their ears, twirling their hair or picking their nose. Don't make a big deal out of it. Children enjoy attention of any sort, whether it is negative or positive. If you make genital stimulation into a big deal, you could end up reinforcing the behavior and actually see more of it. Here are some positive ways for parents to keep their kids from playing with genitals in public:
- Set limits: explain to your child that it is a private activity, much like toileting, and should be limited to the bedroom or bathroom.
- Distraction: try to get your child interested in another activity with their hands.
- Send toddlers to their room to play with genitals if they can’t be distracted from it.
- Increase the amount of hugging, cuddling and parental affection you show to your child.
- Give your child a security object (teddy bear, doll, blanket) to take in public, since they may be using genital play to comfort themselves in an unfamiliar situation.
- For children with developmental delay or other mental impairments who may not be as receptive to reasoning, positive reinforcement techniques may be helpful (for example, reward them for not playing with their genitals with special treats).
- Amaze.org/jr – this site has animated videos to help guide discussions with your children about sexual health
- What’s the Big Secret? by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown
- From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children by Debra W. Haffner
Reviewed by Sara Laule, MD Updated November 2020