Of all the milestones you look forward to with your new toddler, from their first words to their first steps, masturbation definitely doesn’t make the cut.

Toddler masturbation (medically known as infantile masturbation) is a surprisingly common phenomenon in children between the ages of one and five. What is uncommon is new parents knowing what is happening and how to handle it in the best interest of their children.

Toddler masturbation is not as illicit as the common term for the phenomenon may convey. In reality, it’s completely innocent and natural. In actuality, not only is it natural, it’s also considered healthy.

How do you recognize it?

According to Dr. Thirunavukkarasu Babu in an article for the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, “Infantile masturbation: Pitfalls in diagnosis and possible solutions”, toddler masturbation usually starts by two months of age and increases and peaks by four years of age.

Frequency varies from once a week to 12 times a day, and duration ranges from 30 seconds to two hours. He also states that, unlike masturbation in older children and adults, infantile masturbation involves little or no genital stimulation.

Toddler masturbation cannot be discussed in the same manner as masturbation. Oftentimes with toddlers, as Dr. Thirunavukkarasu states, masturbation might mean no hand simulation of any kind. Your toddler may rub their private parts against pieces of furniture, their toys, and even parts of your own body until they climax.

James Palmer, a new father who recently found out that his two-year-old daughter had been masturbating, was scandalized that she could be entertaining sexual thoughts (which of course was not the case). He discovered that his daughter had been wedging her favorite teddy underneath herself and rocking back and forth until her body spasmed, after which a look of what he described as contentment would fill her face.

At first, the new dad feared she had a neurological problem and took her to a doctor, who diagnosed that it was infantile masturbation and nothing to worry over. (In the past, toddler masturbation was often misdiagnosed as some sort of seizure or epilepsy.)

Why is it happening?

Many parents like Dave fear that the habit is brought on by some sort of neurological or developmental challenge, or maybe even sexual abuse. In reality, it’s merely another way your child’s curiosity manifests. Exploration of their genitalia is born out of the same curiosity that leads them to explore a new toy.

The pattern of behavior often begins when a child starts to toilet train. They are freed from their diapers and suddenly gain access to a part of their body that had previously been restricted and out of reach.

In a clinical profile carried out by Dr. Heitham Ajlouni, masturbation in children was linked to reduced estradiol levels, but not to any other sex hormones.   

Should you worry?

The simple answer is no. Albeit a little embarrassing for the parents, especially when done in public, toddler masturbation is completely natural and nothing for parents to worry about.

What can be done about it?

According to Dr. Michele L. Yang and Dr. Erika Fullwood in a recent publication, parents should resist stopping a toddler from masturbating. Scolding or threatening a child is inappropriate, they contest, and efforts to stop the behavior forcefully will only reinforce it and possibly instill a sense of shame or wrong-doing as the child gets older.

In most cases, it’s just a phase that will pass (until rediscovered in teenage years) along with the child’s fascination with that region.

If your toddler is at the age where communication has become easier, teach them that masturbating is something done in private. Gently explain to them why without conveying any feelings of disapproval. Emphasize the fact that the behavior is completely natural and not a bad or shameful thing. You can liken it to the need for privacy during showers or potty time.

If you feel your toddler is old enough to understand, you can attempt to explain to them what they are doing. Use a conversational and relaxed tone when talking about it. An urgent or disapproving tone is easily detected by children.

If your toddler is too young to understand the concept of privacy, distract them when they begin to masturbate in public. Send them on errands or set up a game (such as a jigsaw puzzle) for them to complete. When in the privacy of your home and if at all possible, simply ignore it and allow them to climax.

As your toddler grows older, talking about sex as soon as they are able to grasp the concept is important. Use proper terms when describing sexual organs and activities to ensure they gain a full understanding.

According to the American Social Health Association, children who are afraid to approach their parents with concerns about whether they are “normal” or not (in terms of their sexual organs and feelings) may feel isolated and confused, which may lead to depression and anxiety. Children who don’t learn about sex from their parents may be receiving information (often incorrect) elsewhere – from peers, the media, and other sources.

Once you notice that the behavior has begun to affect certain behavioral tendencies, you should seek professional help. For example, if you notice that the habit has become the sole focus of your child, causing withdrawal from daily activities and human interactions, take your child to a professional.

Although medical complications resulting from the habit are very rare, the possibility of their occurrence is real. Excessive friction resulting from constant rubbing on toys and bits of furniture can traumatize their genitals, especially with girls whose private parts are more sensitive to this manner of trauma. In this case, medical intervention is necessary.

Make sure that the habit is not brought on by anything other than mere curiosity. Observe your toddler at home, at school, and when interacting with family and friends.

In a few cases, the habit may be brought on by a sense of low self-esteem or a distinct lack of communication skills, which also may hinder your toddler from making friends. Boredom is also a leading catalyst of the habit. Remember to keep your kids engaged with mind stimulating activities.

Have you experienced this with your toddler or are currently going through it? Share stories of how you first found out and tips on how you best handled it.