Masturbation: Is This Normal for Preschoolers?

Is masturbation a "normal" thing for a 4-year-old girl to do? And what should my reaction to it be? Should I talk about it at all with her?

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

Masturbation is the self stimulation of the genitals for pleasure or self comfort. During masturbation, a child often appears dazed, flushed, and preoccupied. The frequency of this behavior may range from once per week to several times per day. It occurs more commonly when a child is sleepy, bored, watching T.V., or under stress.

Occasional masturbation is a normal behavior of many infants and preschoolers. Up to one-third of children in this age group discovers masturbation while exploring their bodies. Just as they explore their toes and knees, children find all their parts of their bodies eventually. They find it feels good to touch themselves in this way and continue to do so. Most children do this as a comfort measure much like a pacifier is for infants. Of note: irritation or infection does not cause masturbation. This causes pain or itching, so the child may scratch the area and this should be distinguished from masturbation.

Once masturbation begins, it seldom stops completely. However, by age five or six, most children learn some discretion and masturbate only in private. Masturbation becomes almost universal at puberty with normal surges in hormones and sexual drive.

So how do you come to terms with a behavior that is normal but concerning especially when company is over at the house? I suggest the following:

  1. It is impossible to eliminate masturbation. Accept the fact that she has learned it and enjoys it. Therefore, a reasonable goal is to control where it occurs. Perhaps limiting it to the bathroom or bedroom. Tell your child it's okay, but it is a private thing that should only be done in her bedroom. Don't ignore it completely, or she may think it is okay to do it freely in any setting leading to criticism by adults and chiding by other children.
  2. Ignore masturbation at naptime and bedtime. Try to avoid checking up on them. Remember, this is often a comfort measure to the child.
  3. When masturbation occurs outside of her bedroom, first try distracting her. Try distracting her with an activity preferably requiring the use of her hands. If this fails, discipline her reminding her that you know it feels good, but she can't do that in front of other people. Before the age of four or five she may need to be sent to her room.
  4. Discuss how you are handling this with all her caretakers. Consistency is key to success.
  5. Call your physician if you suspect that your child has been taught masturbation by someone else, your child tries to masturbate others, your child continues to masturbate in front of others.

Masturbation does not cause physical injury or harm to the body, promiscuity, or sexual deviance. Your child is normal. Masturbation is not abnormal or excessive unless it is deliberately done in public places after the age of five or six. Masturbation can cause emotional harm (e.g. guilt or sexual hangups) only if adults overreact to it and make it seem dirty or wicked.

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