Children start exploring their bodies a lot earlier than you might think. Here’s what to expect.
When parents think of milestones in their child’s development, there’s one that isn’t talked about that often: when kids discover their own genitals.
But here’s the thing: This behavior is almost always just as usual and common as when they discover and explore other body parts, like their toes or fingers.
It might be a little embarrassing or awkward the first time you notice your child touching themselves in this way (that’s usual, too), but how you react is also important to their development.
Babies less than a year old aren’t very mobile, but they do start developing some dexterity in their hands and fingers, which means they tend to grab at things, including parts of their body and their genitals.
“Babies and toddlers tend to discover their penis or vulva as soon as they can reach it,” says Lydia Bowers, a sex educator and author of “We Listen To Our Bodies.”
In other words, when they have access, like when they’re diaper-free, in the bath, or you’re changing their diaper, they might grab at their vulva or penis. This is natural.
At this age, Bowers says, “they’re doing a lot of exploring of their bodies and trying to figure out what parts are.”
At first, this grabbing might seem random or accidental, but it might become more purposeful over time. When they get more mobile, they might also push or rub against things.
While babies might grab at themselves when they’re very little, it can become more noticeable when children turn 2 and enter toddlerhood.
“We tend to see more toddlers and early preschoolers exploring their bodies more because of the shift from diapers, which are more restrictive, to underwear with easier access,” Bowers says.
This natural curiosity tends to last until they’re about 5.
By the time your babe is wearing 18 to 24 months clothes, they’ve started to discern their gender identity, becoming aware of who is similar to them and not, both physically and behaviorally by 3 years old. When this awareness develops, some children might become curious about their own genitals and those of other people.
By 5 years old, whether you’re aware or not, your kid likely has a more concrete internalization of their gender identity.
For example, you might see your child watch you curiously as you get dressed, look at their sibling’s genitals, show their genitals to others, touch themselves, or ask their peers to see their private parts.
This behavior is typical of their sexual development, though it can lead to some awkward or embarrassing moments for parents.
Some kids might also touch themselves when they’re scared or anxious — this behavior is more about self-soothing. “Some children do explore for the same reason that other children suck their thumbs: It’s comforting and soothing,” Bowers explains.
How to react to your tot touching their “parts”
Remember that if your child is engaging in this behavior, it’s not really a cause for alarm. Try not to laugh, shame, or scold them for doing it.
“Our reactions are important because we’re laying the foundation for children’s attitudes about their bodies,” Bowers explains. “Laughing, shaming, or yelling all send very specific messages — usually that certain body parts are ‘bad.’”
Then, she continues, “children often grow up feeling ashamed or embarrassed about their bodies.”
Also, your reaction is about more than the words you say. Kids will take in your tone of voice, facial expression, andwords when you react to what they’re doing — and it can become, inadvertently, one of their earliest lessons in sexuality.
That’s why it’s generally recommended that you use a calm and neutral, matter-of-fact tone when talking about body parts and sexual behavior.
Anatomically correct terms
It’s also recommended that you use anatomically correct terms, like penis, testicles, vagina, or breasts, when talking about body parts.
Made-up names for body parts can be confusing, especially if your children go to daycare or school and their friends, teachers, or caregivers don’t use the same words.
It can also suggest that there is something shameful about these parts of the body or the words used to describe them.
Instead, if you use the correct words, you’re setting up trust with your child. This lays the foundation for later conversations about consent, and it can make it easier for your child to tell you about their body.
It also makes it easier for them to talk with you if someone does something to them that makes them uncomfortable or without their consent, as they see you as a safe, shame-free person to talk with about these topics.
Private vs. public
It is OK to tell your kid that touching or exploring yourself should be done in private, not public.
It’s best to try to be nonjudgmental when you acknowledge what they’re doing, but remind them that their penis or vagina is private. This can help teach them about privacy.
You might say
“You should not touch your (penis, vagina, intersex parts) when people are around or in places where other people come and go.”
“The best way to handle these situations is to help children identify the appropriate contexts to engage in these behaviors,” explains Kellie Syfan, a board-certified behavior analyst and founder of Applied Behavioral Happiness (ABH) in Wake Forest, North Carolina. “We can make it a fun conversation for young kids by using silly examples for context.”
For example, she says, you can use these examples to illustrate:
You might say
- “We don’t swim in the kitchen, that’s for swim time at the pool.”
- “We don’t eat under our bed, that for dinnertime at the table.”
- “We don’t burp at the dinner table, that’s for the bathroom.”
Then, when your kid agrees about those situations, you can add: “We don’t touch ourselves at the dinner table, that’s for quiet time in our room,” Syfan says.
You can also try redirecting your child’s attention and hands to another activity — such as a toy or other fidget alternative — if they start touching themselves in a public setting.
Yours vs. mine
You can also start explaining the idea of consent to your toddler, in an age-appropriate way.
For example, if your child is trying to touch other people’s genitals, you can explain to them the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch. In fact, experts generally agree that preschool age is the best time to start talking about this.
You can also explain why we don’t touch other people without their permission — and you can empower your child to say no to touch they don’t want to receive, too.
For example, it’s common for family members to “steal” a kiss, “grab” a hug, or tickle them when they visit with your child and not mean any harm. However, sometimes this behavior makes children uncomfortable. You can empower your kid and set up an understanding of consent if you teach them that have the right to say “stop,” “no,” or pull away.
Once your child is 5 or 6 years old, they have the ability to better understand privacy and personal space.
As a result, you should see a decrease in the amount of public touching your child does of their own body.
This doesn’t mean, however, that their self-touching stops altogether — but that’s common, too. It might take a little while before the idea of privacy truly sinks in, You can gently remind them when you can.
If you notice self-touching behavior or curiosity in sexual behavior, it might also be a good idea to start a conversation with your child.
It’s natural for kids in elementary school or before puberty to have some questions about their own bodies, where babies come from, or even sex — and the playground isn’t a very reliable source of information. If you can begin a conversation and give your child a shame-free way to ask questions, you can help give them a healthier view of their own bodies and sexuality.
If possible, try to resist the urge to view their behavior or questions through an adult lens. Children’s sexuality or self-exploration isn’t the same as adult behavior.
Just like when children are little, as they enter puberty, kids will become more curious about their changing bodies and their sexuality in general.
Masturbation isn’t really a cause for concern, even if you notice your child is spending a lot of time alone or in the shower. So you don’t necessarily need to talk with them about it if you don’t want to.
However, you might consider discussing puberty, sex, and informed consent with them so they understand what’s happening to their bodies and treat others with respect.
Most of the time, curiosity in naked bodies or touching is harmless and ordinary. You should be able to distract or redirect kids if they’re zeroing in on self-touch publicly or trying to “catch a glimpse” of nudity.
“If it appears to be more of a compulsion, and they can’t be redirected, it’s worth a discussion with the child, if possible, to see if something is itching or hurting,” Bowers says. “Particularly as children shift from diapers to underwear and are learning to wipe themselves, itching is not uncommon.”
There are some behaviors that
Possible red flags
- Sexual knowledge that seems beyond the child’s years
- A child becoming angry if they’re asked to stop a sexual behavior
- A child talking excessively about sexual topics and in great detail
- A child trying to coerce another child or aggressively touch someone else
- Touching or sexual behavior between children more than 4 years apart in age
- Self-touching that causes the child pain or distress
- Trying to avoid removing clothing to change
If any of the above resonates with what you may have observed, you can seek professional help or speak with your pediatrician if you’re concerned about your kid’s behavior.
Child psychologists or pediatricians can help assess your child’s behavior and guide you with next steps, if necessary.
If you think your child — or someone else’s — is being abused, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline.
If you find it difficult to talk with your child about touch, sex, and related topics, you’re not alone. As adults, we often have our own inhibitions or views on sexual behavior that can be tough to work through.
There are many resources to help parents with this topic, including age-appropriate books you can read with your child or let them read on their own. Here are a few examples: