Babies are tiny little humans and, like bigger humans, that means they like things that feel good: a cuddle, a yummy meal or a soft blanket. So, does touching their own genitals fall into the feel-good category? Well, yes. “We’re born sexual beings,” says Saleema Noon, a sexual-health educator in Vancouver. “Babies touch their genitals because it feels good and brings them comfort.”
Sometimes a baby boy tugging on his penis or a baby girl putting her hand to her vulva is just about playing, developing their natural curiosity and exploring their body, much in the same way that they pull on their ear or stare at their feet in fascination. Other times, though, it’s about discovering that putting their hand there just feels right, so it’s a form of self-soothing. “We don’t have extensive research on infant masturbation, but from the research we do have, we know that it’s common,” says Noon, adding that boys and girls are equally likely to participate. Heck, this kind of “gratification behaviour” has even been observed in utero via ultrasound.
Often, self-touching will happen during diaper changes and bath time, simply because a diaper isn’t in the way. It’s also totally normal for a baby boy to get a short-term erection as his body reacts to a full bladder or the feeling of air on his genitals during a diaper change or just because it’s nature’s way of testing things out. (However, if it lasts more than an hour, get him checked by your doctor to see if there’s an infection or a blockage.)
Babies less than a year old don’t have a lot of mobility, so self-stimulation is usually about simply touching themselves with a finger or hand at this age. However, more active kids may be capable of rubbing or pushing up against something, perhaps grunting or looking flushed or preoccupied, which can lead to some confusion for adults. In 2013, the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences published a study of 19 babies between the ages of four and 13 months who had been referred to a neurological clinic with an initial diagnosis of a movement disorder or epilepsy. The study found that three-quarters of these infants had actually displayed “self-stimulatory behaviours” that had been misdiagnosed. Several other small studies have revealed the same behaviours.
If you see your baby feeling happy in a whole new way, don’t try to discourage it, says paediatrician Jim Sears of Ask Dr. Sears. “It doesn’t cause any physical harm and won’t mean that your child will grow up to be sexually promiscuous,” he writes.
Noon agrees. “The main thing is that parents understand that it’s healthy and normal,” she says. “It’s nothing to be concerned about. Don’t pull their hand away or speak harshly to them because we don’t want them to think they’re doing something wrong. When kids get to an age where they can understand the idea of privacy [usually], that’s when we need to shift the message to the idea that this is healthy, normal and private.”
Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners