Parenting Tips: How To Handle Masturbation in Young Children

Dear BabyShrink, Lately I have been getting very concerned by my 3-year-old daughter’s annoying habit. She lays on the sofa and puts her hands between her legs and does this kind of "bop pushing action". She sometimes uses objects like her blanky or teddy bear to help her bop between her legs. It doesn't seem to change her attitude or behaviour any, but I find it annoying. Some people have told me that maybe she is developing sexually too early; and this is very scary for me, can this be true? I am very worried as this is embarrassing and I know to ignore the problem may make it go away, but I would really like to know WHY is she doing this?


Mama A in Canada

Hi Mama A,

You pose a very interesting and important question. How do we handle the sexual development of our very young children?

Young childrens' bodies are actively developing in every way. As they develop, they learn that their bodies have different kinds of sensations. It’s a normal part of their own self-exploration. Young children do experience immature sexual sensations, and masturbation is quite normal. It does not mean that the child is developing sexually too early.

However, it’s a difficult balance to strike, as parents. We want to send the message that sexual feelings are healthy and normal. But we also want our children to have a strong sense of boundaries and understanding of what is “good touching” and what is “bad touching”. We also want them to know that there are appropriate places for self-exploration. For instance, your daughter can feel free to explore her body when she is alone in her room. But it’s not an activity for the living room, or with other kids. It’s not too early to begin conveying those messages now. You can say, I know it feels good when you do that. But it’s for you to do in private, in your room, OK?

We want them to learn to feel comfortable with their bodies and the pleasurable sensations they experience. But we also want them to develop a strong psychological sense of privacy and safety in experiencing sexual feelings. This is a good time to start mentioning little facts about her body, and who is allowed to touch whom, and where.

The emotional message you send about the issue is at least as important as the words you use.

If you feel uncomfortable talking about bodies and sexual feelings, perhaps practice first. You don’t need to give her a big lecture. You should simply mention little facts now and again, such as Oh, you’re wearing a bathing suit now. Who is allowed to touch you under your bathing suit? Only you. Or Mommy, Daddy or your doctor, to make sure you’re clean and healthy.

You also need to talk to your daughter’s pediatrician about it, since little girls can have irritation caused by a urinary tract infection or rash. This may cause itching and the kind of behavior you describe. So check that out, too.

One last comment about masturbation. Some may worry that their child was sexually abused or somehow learned this behavior inappropriately. But how do you know if that’s true? If your child masturbates excessively, to the exclusion of other usually interesting activities, and can’t keep her behavior to herself privately, you might want to ask your doctor for help. (And don’t feel embarrassed asking about it; your pediatrician hears this question several times a day!)

I hope this helps!

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink