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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:

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:

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:

How can I find out more about this topic and related concerns?


Written and compiled by Michelle Viglianco-VanPelt, M.D. and Kyla Boyse, R.N.  Reviewed by Jennifer Gold Christner, M.D.

Updated July 2009

U-M Health System Related Sites:
U-M Pediatrics

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