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Quick reference medical handouts used by Pediatric offices

When Young Children Handle their Genitals

Babies are curious little beings. The older they get, the more they explore everything around them. During the seventh or eighth month of life, a baby starts to explore parts of her body. She discovers her ears and can't  resist poking her fingers in them. She may in turn reach for someone else's  ears. The same applies to her nose, eyes, and mouth. As she discovers each of these body parts, she compares her own to those of siblings or parents by touching, pulling, and carefully examining. These body parts are always  exposed, and thus she has easy access to them.

At bat time or diapering time, parts of Baby's body that are generally covered become exposed. This is a natural time for him or her to touch and explore genitals. It is best to consider exploration of the genitals in the same category as pulling at hair or playing with toes. Mom and Dad should treat the behavior casually.

Parents sometimes fear that if they permit touching of the genitals, their baby will develop a bad habit of doing so frequently. While it is true that the genitals have a greater sensitivity than other parts of the body, a young child rarely becomes preoccupied with this activity. Even if a baby seems to reach for his genitals often, it is much more effective to divert his attention cheerfully than to say "no, no" or "naughty" or to slap his hand. These reactions may very well intensify the behavior rather than reduce it.

Brothers and sisters can be a big hindrance when parents want to respond casually to exploration of the genitals. They might giggle, squeal, and yell, "Look what she's doing."
A good response would be: "She's just finding out about her different body parts. Please don't laugh and yell at her, or she will think it's funny and do it to get attention. Why don't you shake this rattle for her while I finish putting her diaper on?"
There is a difference between exploration of the genitals and prolonged stimulation. A young child who is constantly fondling himself is masturbating in an attempt to fulfill some need.

Children who are left alone in their cribs for long periods of time without any stimulation may seek ways of entertaining themselves. Perhaps there is intense trauma in the baby's life such as a divorce or death of a loved one. Tension and anxiety can also be caused by frequent quarreling between parents. Anxious conditions cause a baby to find comfort within himself that may take the form of masturbation. If there are no obvious causes for trauma in

Baby's life that would explain such behavior, parents should do some investigating. Fondling of the genitals is one sign of sexual abuse by a baby-sitter or other close person.

Fondling of the genitals in public is often embarrassing to parents,  grandparents, or anyone caring for a child. When a youngster reaches the age  of two or three, an adult may be tempted to threaten the child in order to  get him or her to stop. If adults ignore children when they touch their  genitals in public, it rarely becomes a problem habit.

Looking at and fondling of the genitals is a normal part of growing up.  Parents should treat such behavior as casually as the child does. Children  who are reared by loving parents in a pleasant and stimulating environment  rarely find it necessary to meet their needs from excessive handling of the  genitals. Baby's touching of these body parts becomes a problem only if the  people around him consider it one and make it one.

written by Merle B. INarnes, Ed D and posted on 09-22-06



As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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