You wouldn’t think twice about seeing a toddler with a finger up their nose, but witnessing the same kid with a hand in their undies can provoke an entirely different reaction. And while the child concerned is usually blissfully unaware of their social faux pas, it can be embarrassing for the parent when it happens in a very public place.
Christina Walker says that she feels really awkward when her three-year-old son Dylan masturbates in public. “He does it all the time. When we’re queuing at the post office, when he’s sitting in the trolley at the supermarket, when he's waiting for his turn on the swings,” she says. “Some mums just give me a knowing smile, but people from older generations can be very disapproving.”
Christina is keen to stop Dylan from touching himself in public. “I don’t want him to be embarrassed about it, but at the same time I want to teach him that it’s something private,” she says.
Christina is far from alone - despite the taboo, toddler masturbation is actually very common. And girls do it too, as Renae Chapman, a mum of two girls, can attest.
"My eldest was never really interested, but my youngest is a bit of fan," Renae says.
She describes a recent incident, when house guests walked in her toddler rubbing against a chair. "We walked in on her rocking against a chair in the spare room, having the time of her life. It was pretty mortifying, and I was so flustered I just left her to it," she says.
So how should parents like Renae and Christina handle their curious kids?
Childhood behavioural consultant Nathalie Brown emphasises that toddler masturbation is completely natural. “It’s not sexual – they have no idea what sex is. They do it because it feels good and because they are naturally curious about their bodies. It is a totally normal learning experience,” she explains.
This pattern of behaviour often begins when a child starts toilet training, she says; they’re out of nappies and suddenly have better access to their genitals. And if it feels good, of course they're going to try it.
“It’s just like discovering a new toy,” Brown says. “They want to see what it does.”
It’s important to tread carefully – you don’t want your toddler to think that exploring their body is ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’, as they may associate sexual or pleasurable feelings with guilt and shame later in life.
“A child will pick up on a negative or disapproving tone, so the more relaxed you can be about it the better,” advises Brown.
Toddlers don’t understand the concept of privacy, so there isn’t much point in asking them to do it their room until they’re a bit older. Brown’s advice is to use distraction instead, suggesting, “Distract them with a toy, or a puzzle, or perhaps by asking them to help you with something.”
If you’re going to be out of the house, prepare yourself by taking some activities with you, such as a favourite toy or a sticker book – something that will keep their hands occupied.
While some parents are concerned about their child’s curiosity, Brown says it’s unlikely to be a symptom of something sinister. “Some people worry that it could be a sign of sexual abuse, but in that scenario a toddler is more likely to become withdrawn – they wouldn’t repeat the act,” she says.
In some cases excessive touching could be a sign of an infection, possibly a urinary tract infection (UTI). It could also be thrush, which can be a side effect of taking antibiotics. These can be tricky to spot in toddlers, as they might have trouble verbalising discomfort, but Brown advices parents to look out for signs.
“Check if they’re scratching, or whether they appear to be uncomfortable passing urine.” If you’re still worried, the best thing to do is visit your GP.
Overall, though, masturbation won’t cause your toddler any physical harm or pose any other health risks.
Try to keep in mind that in most cases, it’s completely normal – and that usually, this too shall pass.
“It’s just a phase, and absolutely nothing to worry about,” Brown says.