Why do babies grab their private parts?

A baby in a baby bath
Photo credit: BabyCenter India

It's normal for babies of either sex to touch their genitals when they're young. It can start as early as 4 to 6 months, as babies gain control of their limbs and hands and start exploring their bodies. They'll grab at anything they can reach, including their ears, feet, and private parts.

Up through 5 to 6 years of age, both boys and girls may touch their genitals anytime, anywhere – during diaper changes, naptime, or even in public – because they find it feels nice and is comforting. Baby girls may rub their vulva, while baby boys may find the penis an interesting and easy-to-reach body part to pull at.

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Your baby's exploration may be occasional or quite frequent. Both are normal. A few rubs may satisfy your baby's curiosity, and they may stop – and then later pick back up where they left off.

How to respond when your baby touches their private parts

If you are witnessing your child's first stab at masturbation, how should you handle it? Calmly – even if it makes you uncomfortable. Try not to giggle, get embarrassed, or tell a child that genital touching is bad or wrong. Doing so can create a sense of guilt or secrecy around sexuality.

Instead, let your baby explore without making any comments. You can even use this curiosity as a teaching opportunity to help your child become familiar with their body. During bath time, recite the anatomically correct names for all of their body parts to your baby, including their penis and testicles or vulva and vagina.

If other people are uncomfortable with your child's attention to their genitals, putting a diaper and pants on and giving them a toy to play with will usually direct their attention elsewhere.

By about the age of 2, you can tell your toddler that touching and exploring their genitals is fine, but that it's a private activity they should do in their own room. It's also never too early to start explaining to your child that it's not okay for any other person to look at or touch their genitals. Tell older children they can say "No" and tell you as soon as possible if this kind of "bad" touching occurs.

Once your child is old enough to follow directions, if they touch their genitals in public you can ask them to wait until they're at home in private. If they persist, ask them to head to the bathroom or bedroom. Don't worry if your child needs to be reminded about this. Again, that's normal.

Most kids give up exploring in public around school age, when it dawns on them that they don't see other kids rooting around in their pants. Talk to your child's doctor if the private-parts prodding continues in public after age 5 or 6, or if your child seems unusually intent on the activity and it interferes with normal routines or play. Otherwise, stick with the "fine but private" message and try to keep your cool.

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When genital touching is a problem

It's very unlikely that your baby is rubbing or tugging at their genitals because of a problem that requires medical attention. Occasionally, however, baby girls can get vulvovaginitis – redness, swelling, and soreness around the vagina and/or vulva – from fabric softener, tight clothing, or wet diapers, among other irritants. Baby boys can get balanitis, or redness and swelling in the head of the penis or foreskin caused by an infection. These conditions could lead babies to rub their genitals.

Although it's usually easy to tell whether your child is exploring in a pleasurable way or reacting to itching or discomfort, check your baby's genital area for any skin lesions, redness, swelling, discharge, or signs of irritation. Talk to your child's doctor if something seems off.

For toddlers and older children, excessive genital touching may rarely signal a problem or be a sign of physical or sexual abuse. Talk with your doctor if your child's behavior:

  • Happens often and can't be redirected.
  • Continues to happen in public even after you've talked to your child.
  • Causes injury or physical pain.
  • Occurs alongside other behavioral or emotional issues, such as anger, sadness, aggression, or bed-wetting.
  • Mimics adult sexual acts.
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Johns Hopkins All-Children's Hospital. Undated. My 1-Year-Old Son Always Tries to Touch His Penis. Is This Masturbation? a new window [Accessed August 2022]

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2019. Sexual Behaviors in Young Children: What's Normal, What's Not? a new window [Accessed August 2022]

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2009. Masturbation. a new window [Accessed August 2022]

Yang ML, et al. 2005. Masturbation in infancy and early childhood presenting as a movement disorder: 12 cases and a review of the literature. Pediatrics 116(6):1427-32. a new window [Accessed August 2022]

Zero to Three. 2012. My 3-year-old son has started to play with his penis. How Should I handle this? a new window [Accessed August 2022]

Mayo Clinic. 2022. Sex education: Talking to toddlers and preschoolers about sex. a new window [Accessed August 2022]

Nemours Foundation. 2020. Vaginitis in Children. a new window [Accessed August 2022]

National Health System. 2020. Balanitis. a new window [Accessed August 2022]

The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. 2018. Penis and foreskin care. a new window [Accessed August 2022]

Colleen de Bellefonds
Colleen de Bellefonds is a freelance health and lifestyle journalist. She's raising her toddler daughter and newborn son with her French husband in Paris.