Your little kid is discovering her body - and it's a normal part of growing up. But it's probably time to explain that some things should be done in private.
My 3-year-old daughter, Maia, loves to rub herself against the buckle of her car seat. We're usually alone, and I don't say anything. After all, she's not hurting or bothering anyone. When I mentioned Maia's activity to her pediatrician, the doc confirmed that she probably was indeed masturbating - but reassured me that her experimentation was normal and healthy and that there was no reason to make a big deal about it.
A century of research shows that children explore their body by masturbating. says Julie Lumeng, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Infants, in fact, may begin to play with their genitals during diaper changes as early as 7 to 10 months, but parents often don't recognize it as masturbation. Boys seem to start earlier, and use their hands, presumably because their penis is more accessible and obvious, says Dr. Lumeng. Some studies have found that half of kids between ages 2 and 4 masturbate, while others report that the percentage of kids who do so increases steadily to 85 percent by age 13. So although you may be shocked when you first spy your little one touching herself, it's comforting to know that she's certainly not the only kid doing it.
It's Not About Sex
Most toddlers and preschoolers will stimulate themselves either by rubbing their private parts or rocking against something like a stuffed animal or even a parent's knee. In fact, some researchers have actually studied this: A recent survey of parents published in Pediatrics found that preschool boys and girls are most likely to use their hands, rub their body against other people, or masturbate with a toy or another object.
Once kids discover their genitals, they continue to masturbate because it feels good. And while you may be a bit uncomfortable thinking that your 3- or 4-year-old is pleasuring himself, it's important to remember that this behavior is purely physical at this age. Young children don't connect sexual images with masturbating; this only occurs when they are much older.
In fact, for a preschooler, touching his genitals is sort of like scratching an itch. Masturbation begins as an unconscious exploratory behavior, but once a child realizes it feels good, hell do it intentionally, says Jillian Bandler Parekh, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at New York City's Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Use one of these strategies for handling the situation in a low-key way.
Leave Her Alone
Kids tend to explore their body when they are in a peaceful, guiet state, such as before naps and at bedtime. You don't see a child running excitedly around the playground and then stop-
ping to masturbate, says Dr. Lumeng. As long as your kid is doing it in a private setting, you should just ignore it.
Redirect His Behavior
If your child is touching himself in public and you're worried about what other people might think, distracting him is the best way to get him to stop. Just put something else in his hand, pick him up, or sing a song, says Rachel Lewis, M.D., a New York City pediatrician.
Never punish your child, tell him Stop that! or speak harshly about the behavior. He won't be embarrassed if you catch him masturbating, so your response should be pretty minimal to avoid giving him the idea that there's something wrong with touching himself. You want your child to feel comfortable, knowledgeable, and in control of his body, says Dr. Lumeng.
Have a Talk If distraction can't curb her public displays of pleasure, it's reasonable to ask your preschooler not to touch herself when other people are around. Children this age are rapidly learning that there are some things you do in private rather than in public, says Dr. Lumeng. You're already teaching your kid about manners - why it's not nice to pick her nose or eat with her mouth open. Explain that masturbation is like bum scratching; it's fine to do it, just not in front of others. You might say, 1 know it feels good, but that part of your body is private and rubbing should be done in your bedroom or the bathroom,' says Dr. Bandler Parekh. With girls, constant touching may be a sign that something's wrong. Gently ask her why she's touching herself so much. If she says something hurts, burns, or itches, contact your pediatrician. She could have a yeast or urinary-tract infection. If she shrugs it off or says she just likes to, you can remind her to do it when she's alone. Fortunately, by 5 or 6. most children learn more discretion and will masturbate only in private.
When to Worry
Anytime kids exhibit certain sexualized behaviors, it may indicate that they've been exposed to inappropriate situations, says Bethany Mohr, M.D., medical director of the Child Protection Team at the University of Michigan. Call your pediatrician if your child:
- Asks another child or adult to engage in a sexual act
- Aggressively touches other kids' genitals Tells you that another kid has taught him to engage in a sexual act
- Has sexual knowledge that is inappropriate for her age - for example, plays with dolls in a risqué way