While I was pregnant, I dreamed of the special times my daughter and I would share when she was a toddler. I envisioned play groups, music classes, and maybe age-appropriate art and crafts activities. But I never considered the issue of her sexuality. Like many people, I thought parents didn't have to worry about that issue until their kids got closer to adolescence.

Not true. We were happily banging away on a conga drum the other day in rhythm class when the little boy next to us started playing with himself. His mother was very embarrassed and quickly distracted him with a giant cymbal. I wondered if I would have handled the same situation with as much grace. After all, the issue of toddlers touching themselves was never mentioned in any of the parenting books I read.

How to Handle It Gracefully

Brette Simmons (not her real name), of New York, says that both her kids engaged in some form of self-stimulating behavior as toddlers. She felt that the best way to handle the situation was to talk about the proper names for genitals and to "just let them do it."

That was exactly the right approach, according to Gail Gross, EdD, host of a Houston radio show entitled, "Let's Talk," which encourages parents and children to talk through difficult situations.

She says that exploring their bodies is a perfectly natural behavior for children, and she encourages parents to avoid sending the message that this normal exploration is dirty or harmful.

"Children take their cues from the behavior of their parents, and our silent cues are sometimes the most important," she says. "I encourage parents to be their child's sexual resource, to be open to their reactions and questions. This starts in infancy and pays off in the teen years."

Dr. Gross also tells parents to strive for balance in behaviors like this. "Sometimes we bring our sexual hang-ups to the table as parents, and let them influence our children's innocent interactions. It's important for parents to stick with the focus of privacy, and whether this is an appropriate behavior for this particular time and place."

It's Normal

Peter L. Stavinoha, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Center for Pediatric Psychiatry, Children's Medical Center of Dallas, says that self-stimulation in toddlers is not really what we adults think of as masturbation.

"In a 15-year-old or a 35-year-old, self-stimulation takes on a whole new meaning, as opposed to the simple self-exploration that we see in toddlers," he says. "The self-stimulation you see in a young child is really just a behavior that feels good, so it is self-reinforcing. It is not sexual like true masturbation."

The Social Aspects

Dr. Stavinoha says that self-stimulation starts in infancy, "As soon as they can reach it, they go for it," he explains with a laugh. "This tends to taper off for a while, but then toilet training brings it all back with all of the attention on that part of the body." He encourages parents to understand that genital play in a public situation is usually just an indication that their child is not yet socialized, and that parents can often have a simple chat about private behaviors to end the public displays.

Pointing to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics , Dr. Stavinoha says that it is very common for two- to five-year-olds to engage in frequent sexual behaviors like self-stimulation. He notes that parents are usually happy to hear that these displays drop off considerably after age five.

"Some parents really freak out, and this just draws excessive attention to the behavior," he cautions. "Instead, I advise parents to ignore it, unless it occurs in a public situation."

Dr. Stavinoha says that educating kids about touching themselves and about sexual innuendoes and potty humor is really a long process, and that parents will get better results by talking about the behavior in a neutral manner, after the situation has passed.

Some Things to Remember

The experts offer the following tips:

  • Relax —Remember that it's normal. Dr. Gross estimates that up to one-half of all boys and one-third of all girls touch themselves regularly as toddlers, and that all children have stimulated their genitals by their first birthday.
  • Distract—don't overreact —Experts agree that the best reaction is no reaction, but if you feel that you must intervene, try distracting your toddler with a favorite toy or other object that requires the use of her hands.
  • Introduce privacy —This is a great time to introduce the concept of public versus private, says Dr. Stavinoha. Explain to your child that some things are private and better done in a bedroom than in a play group.
  • Recognize the cause —It is very common for children to self-stimulate when they are tired, or when their genitals are freely accessible such as bath and diaper times. Simply ignoring the behavior at these times is probably the easiest solution; recognize that this is probably nothing more than a comfort measure or simple experimentation.