Masturbation in Young Children

Dr. Greene, I need to know about a 2-year-old’s masturbating. What brings it on, and how concerned should I be about a sudden constant desire to engage in the behavior?
L. D. – Ramona, California

Masturbation in Young Children

Dr. Greene’s Answer:

When a parent catches a boy playing with his ears, questions may arise about ear infections. When a parent catches a boy playing with his stiff penis, subterranean concerns, anxieties, guilts, shames, questions and regrets often rumble and stir within — even if we believe that it’s normal behavior. Why do we have these complex and powerful feelings?

Most children begin to explore their genitals at about the same time they begin to look more like little boys and girls than like babies. Just when we are beginning to adjust to their not being babies anymore, we are confronted with the sight of our little boy fondling his erection or our little girl moving her hips up and down on top of her pillow with a glazed look in her eyes. How jarring!

A glimpse, a foreshadowing, of our little ones as sexually mature adolescents is superimposed on our image of them as innocent babies — and all of this resonates with our complicated feelings about our own sexuality and innocence. No wonder this can elicit such concern!

If we take a step back, though, we can see that it makes sense that kids would want to explore their own bodies. When toilet learning becomes a focus of interest, we might anticipate that kids would also be curious about those parts of the body that have in the past been largely hidden under the diapers. Boys will play with their penises. Girls will finger their vaginas, and even insert objects. Many kids will reach down every chance they get. This exploration produces pleasurable feelings, as we are well aware.

Most, if not all, two year olds will engage in some degree of this behavior. Although many parenting books refer to this as childhood masturbation, I believe the term is misleading and unfortunate. Save the term masturbation for genital stimulation accompanied by sexual fantasy — another challenge to face years down the road. Toddlers just do it because it feels good. Unselfconscious delight!

Babies will often tug on the genitals in much the same way they tug on the ears or toes. Toddlers, though, begin to recognize that the genitals are special. They are far more interesting and more fun than toes. For some children, playing with the genitals becomes a self-comforting behavior not unlike thumbsucking. For a few, this settles into a time-consuming habit that takes them away from other important play and development.

What is the wisest way for parents to approach genital play in their toddlers?

First, let the jarring foretaste of your child’s future sexuality help you to cherish the moments of this brief first adolescence. Many people call this period the terrible twos, and wish for these days to soon end. While these months are difficult, they are also a brief, unrepeatable, precious time.

Next, let the foretaste remind you that one of our important responsibilities as parents is to teach our children about healthy sexuality. Of course, the many parents reading this will have wildly different ideas as to what constitutes healthy sexuality. They may even have very different ideas than they themselves did fifteen years ago. Whatever your values, you will want to communicate them to your children as the years go by. You will want to teach them that healthy sexuality is not dirty, nor is it cheap.

The key to passing on your values effectively is keeping the lines of respect and communication open.

I recently received a letter from a concerned couple who had spoken to their pastor about their son’s habit of playing with himself. They said that their pastor “has not been able to find anyone who has ever even heard of a child this young, exhibiting this kind of behavior.” They wanted me to tell them how to “properly assert the correct behavior.” (The letter was semi-anonymous.)

My advice is not to try to stop this normal part of development.

If the genital play becomes and remains a consuming passion, I would look for and address underlying reasons, rather than trying to stop the behavior. Is the child tense and in extra need of self-comforting? Are people overreacting and thus reinforcing the habit? Is there a chronic, low-grade urinary tract infection or yeast infection? Is the child overstimulated and needing to soothe himself to withdraw? Is she understimulated and bored? Dealing with the cause will bring the behavior back to a level of enthusiasm that doesn’t take away from other interests.

If you feel that the genital play should be reigned in a bit, then I recommend that when you see it happening you pretend to ignore what he is doing. Try to distract him with some new, engaging activity. Be as nonchalant as you can manage to be. (Rushing over out of breath is not subtle!) You want to communicate by your actions that he and his body are okay, but that there is also a whole world out there to discover and enjoy.

Directly trying to get toddlers to stop touching themselves is a battle you cannot win. You can’t just put the objects of their attention up on a high shelf out of reach. If you actively discourage kids from self-exploration, or if you punish them for “masturbating,” then genital play becomes a forbidden fruit.

Two things happen when something becomes a forbidden fruit. The fruit will be tasted when the opportunity arises, and people will hide what it is they have done. They will feel the need to be “semi-anonymous.” This shameful hiding is the one outcome you don’t want to produce.

All too quickly, our little ones will launch out on the turbulent seas of true adolescence. Only if we have maintained open communication and mutual respect can we offer any effective guidance during those critical years.

Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is the founder of DrGreene.com (cited by the AMA as “the pioneer physician Web site”), a practicing pediatrician, father of four, & author of Raising Baby Green & Feeding Baby Green. He appears frequently in the media including such venues as the The New York Times, the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, & the Dr. Oz Show.

  1. April Collum

    I have a 2 year old daughter who, I had just recently found out from her Aunt in West Virginia that when she changed my daughters diaper she had put her finger in her vagina opening. I am very alarmed and concerned about this especially because when I was a teenager I was also molested. That and from a very young age I have cared for children and have rarely witnessed any peculiar or questionable behavior in any other young children. Please help concerned MOM!!!!!!!!

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  2. Lillie Goins

    I have a question to u guys… if a child is sticking her fingers into her vagina, is its dangerous?

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    • April Collum

      My daughter is two years old and when getting her diaper changed she was sticking her finger in the opening I am terrified she has been touched by someone?!?! Most children that age don’t know they have those openings down there would you agree?!?! Thank you, and god bless you!!!!!!

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    • Chris kennedy

      No its not tell her/you to just enjoy!!

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  3. Ashlyn

    Somewhere between the ages of 6-8 I played the game of doctor with some friends. There was a good doctor and a bad doctor. The good doctor would just touch me, while the bad doctor had me take off my clothes, lye naked on the side of the bed, and insert a doll inside my vagina. It was a “punishment” because I had been “bad”. I am in my 30’s and that game still haunts me. For years I saw masturbation as something to do as a punishment. Of course, I always have had, and knew I would have, a very pleasing physical reaction to what I was doing. I was sexually abused in my teens. I always wonder if one of the children who played the game with me had been sexually abused? It doesn’t seem normal. Apparently our moms found out and knew. They just made sure not to have any boys over.

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  4. Maureen

    A friends little 3 year old girl has started to discover her vagina, no problem there. But her father’s reaction to this is gagging, she stops to watch his reaction. Her mother is trying to get him to stop but he just keeps doing it. Do you have any suggestions to help him to stop reacting this way, as it is bound to cause issues for his little girl if her daddy reacts like this.

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    • April Collum

      I agree gagging is only going to encourage the child to do it more. therefore creating more problems and making what is an innocent behavior to become more trouble some. Maybe instead of gagging he could distract her with a favorite toy or create a conversation explaining her body while changing her with her mother. Get creative you don’t want them to be afraid of their bodies but all the while getting them to understand there is a time and place for her curiousness for her body ;)

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  5. RickyOeser

    Hello Dr green,
    I am a 12 year old boy and i was wondering if it is normal for me to masturbate at this age?

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    • Unknown name

      I think so yes. Just depends where, and how you do it.
      Also depends on your parents opinion about it.
      I did this when I was 11, only because I was exposed to this.

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      • Cody

        Hey I do it only when I’m stressed out and I’m also 12 years old

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    • Chris

      I do it and I can’t see any problems about doing it I also do it when I’m bored or stressed so just go and enjoy!
      (BTW) I’m a 12 year old boy as well.

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  6. The Godfather

    Thanks for this article!

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  7. Usama

    Y. I am 22 year now . I start masturbate when i was in chid age . I have taken lots of medicine also for stop but all in vain. I am weak and my mind is also have lost his remembering activity. I have no thinking like others think. Help me for cure

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  8. george dalton

    perfectly normal for females and males to explore their sexuality. Both can reach orgasm at a Young Age. I find no problem with this. it’s a form of Relaxation, and it feels GREAT

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  9. Sally Mohammed

    This is the most helpful write up I’ve seen concerning this issue. As a mother of 5 children i never had this issue with any of my 4 eldest. But my last son proved different. Started since he was 2 years. And has gotten worse now. I’m ashamed to say i tried various ways to make him stop. I punished him, counciled him, even screamed at him, but these seem to fuel this behavior. It is very hard for me to read online whr people say it normal and o should ignore him. D sight of him fondling himslef is very disturbing and keepa me awake at night. I am a very religious person so i hope u understand why this is hard for me to take in. I pray about it now. Hoping he out grows this exploratory behaviour before he grows up and it becomes a full blown sexual pleasure.

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  10. Bethanie

    I’m in year six going to year seven and i’m 11 i have boys in my class always liking to hump on girls the time they laid on my friend Mary she started to eat very little like they acually had sex with her! and she cries allot she also uses the toilet all the time!
    Now my main concern and question is she pregnant? Is she Masturbating Well i don’t no Everyone is worried and i really want to help her did the boys penis’ sperm go into hers I’m not shy to ask these questions because i am curious! And want to gve her all the encouragement…

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    • Sally Mohammed

      Hi. I know by now you are all grown up and have seen dt ur frnd is obviously not pregnant.

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