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My baby is 20 months old. He cannot talk that well, mostly only saying a few words clearly or baby speak. He goes to nursery twice a week, for the rest of the time he is at home with his mother.

We had some mild concern about him trying to kiss us on the lips - open mouthed, we don't do this with him, we kiss him on the head, or peck him on the check. We mentioned this to his nursery caregiver, she advised it was pretty normal and I wasn't too concerned. I'm providing this information for context.

Today, my wife called as we had a weird incident at home, he was laying in our bed in front of her, and he reached for her hand. She thought initially that he just wanted a cuddle, but he pulled her hand towards his crotch. She thought maybe he wanted to go to the toilet (we really want him to start vocalising about toilet needs more so we can start toilet training and getting him to use a potty) but instead he wanted her to rub him on the crotch (through his nappy) - she pulled away and said it was inappropriate but he pulled her hand back, she realised as well while hes doing this that he had a baby erection.

We are used to when changing him for him to grab himself down there a bit (but not excessively) which I always viewed as self exploration but this seemed different to her and has caused us both concern.

We know that we have no real evidence of anything, if we suggested anything to the nursery they would not admit anything and would probably be more concerned about covering themselves. It's so incredibly frustrating when a child is not at a verbal stage to be able to tell you anything themselves and am at bit of a loss as to how to proceed.

I know babies/young children can play with themselves out of boredom or exploration - but my wife feels someone must have taught him this. We could take him out of nursery and try somewhere else, but it's concerning and we have no evidence/proof of anything bad, just a potential suspicion.

Is this behavior normal? What should we/can we do? Has anyone had to deal with a situation like this?

  • i don't think it necessarily means there is an issue with the nursery – Tim Apr 15 at 9:14
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About 1 in 10 children discover masturbation before puberty. And the majority of those discover it in infancy or as toddlers. It is almost never a sign of abuse or sexual misconduct, and there is no research that suggests that this is unhealthy or that it leads to longterm mental or sexual damage of any sort. I know it seems counterintuitive, but it seems to just be a normal part of childhood for some children. It is not even really "sexual" per say. Interviews with kids show that it's not usually associated with sexual fantasies or tied to specific people or arousal. It's just something that feels good and soothes them, much like sucking on a thumb, or having your back rubbed.

Many children who masturbate use their hands, but rubbing against objects like a teddy bear or pillow is also common. Your son trying to use his mother's hand is not unreasonable, but is obviously inappropriate and should be redirected so that he learns more appropriate outlets (more on how to do that below).

The most common issues that arise when a child masturbates are ones of the activity not being suitable for public spaces. Infants and toddlers are not usually able to really understand the idea of "that's not appropriate here," which can prove to be a struggle.

If he starts masturbating in public, pediatricians typically recommend that parents and caretakers use language like "that's something we do in private," and then gently redirect his behavior to something else, like a game that requires his hands, or offering to rub his back. Pediatricians advise against trying to stop the behavior altogether, since it is only shown to cause shame and secrecy, and not actually stop it at all.

For right now, your top concern is probably redirecting his attention away from an adult's hand and to his own hands or another, more appropriate object. To do this, say "no, that's your business. Would you like me to rub your back?" At this age, redirect by initiating a different sort of physical affection such as a back rub or a game. You could also offer a different soothing item like a pacifier if you use one, or a blanket.

As he gets older, you can have conversations about it like "When you touch yourself, it feels good. Lots of people like to feel good like that, but it's not something that we do in public or talk about with people who aren't family." You can compare it to things like talking about underwear or bathroom activities, or to being naked.

You will likely want to have a conversation with his teacher or the administrator at his nursery about it in case he starts doing it there. I promise, he won't be the first child they have seen who does this sort of thing at nap time. You can tell them the language that you use at home, and what sort of redirection usually works.

Finally, I encourage you to talk to his doctor about it. They can give more advice and provide you with resources. It's really quite natural and not harmful. It is a bit uncommon, but it's nothing to be afraid of.

Good luck!

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    Can you back up the claims in your first paragraph ("About 1 in 10...", "And the majority...", "Interviews with kids...") so that interested people can read more about it? Thanks! – Anne Daunted Apr 12 at 16:59
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    I agree that parents who want to explore this further (or who want to verify this) should be able to do so from a source supporting your assertion. Thanks! – anongoodnurse Apr 15 at 15:28
  • I previously read something very similar to this from an old parenting book my parents had, can't reference that (probably out of print now!) - only can confirm this anecdotally from my own childhood. – Tim Apr 17 at 9:43

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