Embarrassment as a parent is nothing new. Children making parents cringe is as old as time itself. But, seeing your adorable toddler rubbing their privates on their favorite stuffed animal at a family reunion makes a temper tantrum in Target’s pool floatie aisle seem tame.
There’s a name for this, and it’s a hard one for many parents to digest: infantile masturbation.
It’s Not Really Sexual, Per Se
Infantile masturbation generally doesn’t involve direct contact with genitalia. Rather, children between the ages of four months and five years of age tend to rub up against things, like furniture, a car seat, and yes, that beloved stuffed toy.
It’s not really a sexual urge, more of an instinct to do what happens to feel good. And it doesn’t always even look like masturbation to some parents. In fact, often when parents first see it, they think their baby is having a seizure, or engaging in stereotypic behaviors (which might bring on a panic that the child is on the autism spectrum).
There isn’t much research on infantile masturbation. But, one article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry does focus on it, suggesting parents be very cautious when observing and “diagnosing” their toddler.
“Unlike masturbation in older children and adults, IM involves little or no genital stimulation. This is the single most reason why making a diagnosis of IM is difficult. Moreover, it can manifest with various behavioral patterns including clonic movements, tonic posturing, grunting, rocking, facial flushing, sweating, etc.”
The article continues, “Children tend to get fatigue after the episode and fall asleep. Since IM often mimics seizures, dystonia and abdominal pain, it has a higher propensity to get misdiagnosed. This can lead to unnecessary investigations and drug therapy.”
Healthy Children provides a list of “normal” behaviors for two to six year olds. While these behaviors might look overtly sexual, they’re just part of child development:
- Touching/masturbating genitals in public or private
- Looking at or touching a peer’s or new sibling’s genitals
- Showing genitals to peers
- Standing or sitting too close to someone
- Trying to see peers or adults naked
Keep in mind that, even if you can’t remember it, you probably engaged in some of these things as a kid, too. In fact, 90% to 94% of males and 50% to 60% of females recalled masturbating at some point during their childhood.
So, if you see this behavior, relax. It’s normal. And probably embarrassing, and potentially annoying.
Ok, It’s Normal, But How Do I Approach It?
The one thing you should not do, experts agree, is physically stop your child or shame them. Rather, redirection is the key.
“If you see your child masturbating in a common area of the house, redirect your child’s attention to more appropriate behavior by saying that adults, ‘do that in private, and you should, too,’“ Dr. Sherry Nafeh, LMFT tells Parentology. “Reinforce that children should respect common spaces.”
Telling them that the activity is something they can do in their room works. Sometimes, they’re simply bored and can be distracted by a different activity. You should also talk to your child calmly and openly about boundaries.
”Always use appropriate language to describe private body parts, just to normalize that it’s really just another body part and nothing to be embarrassed about,” Nafeh said. “Always remind them that body parts are only for themselves, or doctors with the parents’ permission. Find good times to talk to your children about personal safety and what things are safe not to share and what needs to be shared.”
In addition, you want to make clear it’s not okay to touch other people’s bodies without permission; you don’t want your kid grabbing at another’s genitalia during preschool story time. Because that’s rude at best, and viewed as sexual assault at worst.
One Can Get Too Much of a Good Thing
Look, if it feels good, a kid is going to do it, and sometimes to excess. There are cases in which chafing, abrasions, and even urinary tract infections can occur. It’s rare, but it happens. If that’s the case, a pediatrician visit is necessary.
In addition, too much interest, combining masturbation with violence against other children, or imitating adult sex acts are all red flags. These things could be signs of sexual abuse, and should not be ignored.
In the end, have patience. It’s a phase. Your child will stop it eventually, at least in public, and will go on to immerse themselves in other things, like sports or art or science. Just make sure you keep communication open, so if your kid has questions about their body, or what’s “normal,” they feel comfortable coming to you and not someone else.
“Children are curious about their body parts,” Nafeh notes. “It’s very important to be cognizant about not shaming or embarrassing the child while they are exploring and just being curious.”