It may be worrisome to find your child touching their genitals for pleasure. Many parents think that masturbation is something that emerges during adolescence with hormonal and secondary sex characteristics such as erections for boys and menstruation for girls. However childhood masturbation, often called genital stimulation and touching, usually starts around 2 months of age but can sometimes start in utero.
One of the main differences between childhood genital stimulation and adolescent and adult masturbation is that childhood genital stimulation often stops if the child becomes distracted. On average, children who touch their genitals generally do so two to four times per day for approximately 4-10 minutes.
Reassuringly, genital stimulation is completely normal and a natural part of exploring one’s body. Statics reveal that more than 90% of boys and nearly 60% of girls touch themselves during their lives.
Children touch themselves differently at different ages. Some male infants touch their penis in utero. During the first year (0-12 months), some children stimulate their genital areas by rubbing between their thighs, rocking back and forth, or arching their back. Toddlers and preschoolers (1-4 years) may show their genitals to others or ask to see another child’s genitals, or publicly or privately touch their genitals. School age children (5-10 years) peak with genital touching around 5 years which then decreases until puberty. Normally children at this age will touch themselves in private. During adolescence (11-20 years), sex hormones increase erotic fantasies and masturbation, which may include pornography.
The definition of normal genital touching varies based on cultural, societal and family beliefs. However, it is normal that children use their hands to explore and know their own bodies and watch themselves in a mirror as part of developing a self-identity. Children can also become more interested in their bodies after the birth of a sibling, observing breastfeeding or seeing an adult or other child use the bathroom.
Of course it is important to monitor genital touching that may be related to sexual abuse. Children who have been victimized sexually have increased interest and behaviors that are distinct from children who have not been victimized. Some inappropriate behaviors that may reflect sexual victimization include:
- Putting mouth on genitals or breasts
- Requesting to participate in sexual acts
- Masturbating with objects
- Inserting objects into the vagina or anus
- Imitating sexual intercourse
- Inserting tongue while kissing
- Undressing with other individuals
- Imitating sexual behavior with dolls
- Requesting to see inappropriate television or internet shows
Parents who note any of these behaviors should consider seeking the advice of the family’s pediatrician.
Pornography exposure can also influence the frequency and type of genital touching. Many children spend hours viewing content on computers, tablets, and telephone screens. It is not uncommon for pornography to appear, even accidently, based on the algorithms of the Internet platform being used. Therefore it is important that parents monitor their children’s use of Internet programming and frequently review their content history.
Finally, even if children have not been exposed to pornography or sexual violence, they may touch themselves so frequently that they cause pain or bleeding. Excessive or obsessive masturbation at any age is considered abnormal if it leads to pain, discomfort, or disability. In these cases, parents should reach out to their pediatric provider to consider what the cause may be and find a solution to reduce the child’s discomfort.
So what can parents do to help support a child’s natural and normal self-exploration while also assuring their health and safety?
- Teach modesty from a young age to help children learn that their bodies are special and deserve respect.
- Have children dress in bedrooms or bathrooms
- Avoid trying on clothing in public areas of a store – use the dressing rooms
- Limit nudity to appropriate environments such as bathrooms and bedrooms at home
- When children are touching their genitals, instruct them to do so in a private place
- Avoid shaming them for the activity, just direct them to an appropriate location, such as their bedroom or bathroom
- Do not allow children to touch themselves in public areas of the home such as the dinner table or living room sofa
- Help children learn that self touching should be limited to their home and explain it is not appropriate in public places such as stores, parks, or restaurants.
- Educate children about who has permission to touch their genitals and who does not
- Tell children that mother and fathers can touch their bodies during bath time, using the bathroom or dressing time
- Tell children that doctors and nurses may touch their bodies to provide care
- Let children know that no one else has the right to touch their bodies and if someone tries they should come and tell you right away
Together, these activities help children know when it is safe and appropriate for them to self explore their bodies while also protecting them from embarrassment and exploitation. Genital exploration is a normal part of childhood development and helps children understand their bodies. Parents should become aware of this activity, support its natural evolution and watch for any issues that may indicate the need for further assistance.
Chiesa A. & Goldson, E. (2017). Child sexual abuse. Pediatrics in Review, 38. p. 105
Mallants, C. & Casteels, K. (2008). Practical approach to childhood masturbation – A review. European Journal of Pediatrics, 167, pp. 1111-1117.
Wilkinson, B. & John, R.M. (2018). Understanding masturbation in the pediatric patient. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 32(6), pp. 639-643.
About the instructor
Dr. Deanna Marie Mason PhD
More than 20 years of clinical experience helping families:
Bachelor's Degree in Registered Nursing, Master’s Degree in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and PhD in Nursing. University professor, patient education specialist, pediatric researcher, published author and reviewer to first-line international scientific journals, continuous philanthropic activity related to health promotion and education, wife and mother of two children.