What is masturbation?
Masturbation is deliberate self-stimulation that results in self-comfort or sexual arousal. Many parents are alarmed to find their young child engaged in such activities. Our Western society does not generally like to think of children as sexual beings, but sexual development is as much a part of their normal growth and development as is learning language, playing, and getting the proper nutrition in order to grow.
Is masturbation common?
Yes. It is a common childhood habit. Most children—both boys and girls—play with their genitals (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. Estimates of the rate of adult masturbation are about 95-99% of men and 40-60% of women. Find out more about childhood habits and annoying behaviors.
How do children learn about masturbation?
No one has to teach a child to explore his or her genitals. It provides a feeling of pleasure, that once discovered, the child will most likely repeat. There have even been studies of prenatal ultrasounds revealing male fetuses doing it.
Most often, however, boys 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). Some child psychologists think that boys who have seen a naked girl may be fearful that they could lose their penis and end up looking like the girl. However, no one can be sure of what these toddlers are thinking.
Girls often don’t discover their vulva (female external genitalia) until about ten to eleven months of age. They may even insert objects into their vaginas as a matter of curiosity—much like the beans and small toys children of this age like to put into their noses and ears.
Genital play in both sexes can also take the form of rubbing with hands or rubbing against other objects such as a pillow, stuffed animal or the bed. Often the child will be found staring, flushed, with an absent look on their faces, breathing fast or irregularly while masturbating. The behavior generally increases with boredom, sleepiness or stress in the child’s life. It is important to remember that children do not generally associate this activity with sexuality or adult relationships until much later in childhood, more toward puberty. This is reassuring to some parents who are alarmed by their child’s behavior. Genital play is often used simply as a form of self-comfort.
When should I be alarmed by my child’s behavior?
Most often, masturbation 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 masturbation.
- 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 (your child may have an infection with pinworms or a bladder infection).
What do I do if my child is playing with their genitals in public?
Toddlers and preschoolers do not really understand the social implications of public masturbation, 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 (and you know they’re not shy about doing that in public!). Don't make a big deal out of it. Children enjoy attention of any sort, whether it is negative or positive. If you make masturbation into a big deal, you could end up reinforcing the behavior and actually getting more of it.
Children should never be punished or shamed for masturbating, as this can have major effects on their self-esteem and comfort with sexual activity as adults. There are lots of positive ways for parents to keep their kids from masturbating in public places:
- 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 masturbate if they can’t be distracted from it.
- Ignore masturbation at bedtime or naptime and encourage your child’s daycare to do the same.
- 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 masturbation 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).
What about all those things I’ve heard about the dangers of masturbation…is there any truth to them?
Throughout history, there have been many myths regarding masturbation. All of these myths are false. There is no medical basis for any of them. Below are the TRUTHS about masturbation:
- It does NOT stunt your growth. (Find out more—for teens, also in Spanish.)
- It does NOT cause blindness.
- It does NOT cause deafness.
- It does NOT cause you to grow hair on your palms.
- It does NOT cause stuttering.
- You CANNOT die from it.
- It does NOT mean your child will be promiscuous as an adult.
- It will NOT drive a person crazy.
- It IS perfectly healthy as long as it does not interfere with relationships with friends and family, or with doing other activities.
- Early Childhood Masturbation is a long transcript of a program that aired on an Australian radio show and includes comments of parents, childcare workers and experts on the topic.
- More on Masturbation in Preschoolers.
- Masturbacion en los niños de edad preescolar
- These tips for talking to kids in different age groups about sexuality may be of some help in talking to your child about masturbation:
- For teens: Information about sexual health from Kidshealth.org.
- YourChild: Bad Habits/Annoying Behavior
- YourChild: Personal Safety
- YourChild: Sexuality and Kids with Disability or Chronic Illness —a resource list.
- Check out the excellent book From Diapers To Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children, by Debra W. Haffner
This book is filled with practical advice and guidelines to help parents feel more comfortable talking to children and early adolescents about sexuality issues. Incorporating value exercises, it encourages parents to examine their own sexual values so that they can share these messages with their children.
- Books for young people (preschool through high school) relating to sexuality—a bibliography from SEICUS.
Written and compiled by Michelle Viglianco-VanPelt, M.D. and Kyla Boyse, R.N. Reviewed by Jennifer Gold Christner, M.D.
Updated July 2009
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