What to do when your toddler plays with himself
There’s nothing to be embarrassed about when your tot plays with himself – but you might not want it happening in public. Here’s how to cope
If you’ve got a toddler, especially a boy, it’s likely that he’s had his hand on his willy at some point today! Likewise, your little girl has probably shown some fascination with your boobs, or her brother’s penis. Just what is it with toddlers and their bits? “It’s perfectly natural for little children to touch themselves,” says Dr Miriam Stoppard. “Little boys do tend to do it more than little girls, and there’s a simple reason for that. From four months, babies will grab onto anything that sticks out – their toes, ears, noses, and with boys, their willies of course.”
Why he does it
The thing with private parts is that, to a toddler, they’re not private at all. As far as your tot’s concerned, they’re just another part of his body. So far in his short life, he’s had access to your breasts, he’s likely to have seen you naked and been cuddled naked by you, and you’ll probably have bathed with him too. Covering up his body and not touching certain parts is the most alien thing in the world to him. It’s about attention, too.
“If a child is tired or wants a hug, he might touch himself for comfort or to get your affection,” says Miriam Stoppard. Dennis Friedman, psychiatrist and author of An Unsolicited Gift: Why We Do What We Do, adds, “More or less from birth onwards an infant is concerned with communicating in some way or another with his mother. Just like he gets comfort from putting his thumb in his mouth, it’s feasible to say that he’s using his body language to get mum’s attention.”
How to deal with it
The way to handle it is to stop thinking about him touching himself as something sexual and getting all embarrassed about it.
“It’s nonsense to see it as anything sexual,” says Miriam Stoppard. Educational psychologist Charles Ward agrees, “Children don’t have any concept that they’re touching somewhere linked to anything sexual,” he says. “Like all things you’d rather they didn’t do, it’s usually best dealt with by not making a big thing out of it.”
Pippa Crust, mum to Henry, 4, Beatrice, 3, and George, 2, agrees, saying, “I think it’s really important that children don’t get told off for it. When my children are having a fiddle with their bits, I just try to say that it’s OK to do it at home, and talk to mummy and daddy about it.
As they get older, I‘m sure they’ll get all embarrassed about it but for now it’s OK.”
Coping when he touches others
So now you’ve got your head around your toddler being at one with his bits, what happens when he discovers, as he inevitably will, that other children are different and wants to take a peek? That often happens once you introduce playdates, he starts nursery or a sibling is born.
“Toddlers are exploring everything,” says Miriam Stoppard. “As they grow up they get into little groups and play role-play games. That’s their way of understanding what’s going on around them.” And with that comes the realisation that some other children are different ‘down below’.
The solution, once again, is not to make a big issue of it, says Charles Ward. “Remember, children will not necessarily understand ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or the reasons behind your request for them not to touch or look at other children,” he says. “So just say, ‘Boys and girls are different’, or ‘Yes, they look different’. Be gentle, but matter of fact.
“There’s a balance between getting the child to understand that, while it’s not ‘wrong’ to be inquisitive about things, what he’s doing is an infringement of the other child’s privacy. So simply say something like, ‘You wouldn’t want them to do that to you, would you?’”
Once toddlers know they’re different from their peers, they’ll notice how unusual your body is compared to their own. Again, it’s pure inquisitiveness, nothing sexual. “Be open about nudity,” says Miriam Stoppard. “As a child gets older they touch you more because they find it rather weird for women to have big boobs! You could even say to a girl, ‘You’ll have the same things when you grow up.’”
For Clare Cartwright, mum to Finley, 6, Zak, 2, and Noah, 6 months, bathtime threw up a body-based conundrum. “Living in a houseful of men, I’m the odd one out body-wise. My 2 year old looked at me in the bath the other day and said, ‘Mummy, how do you have a wee?’” she says. Pippa Crust adds, “If they mention my boobs or daddy’s willy, we just confirm the facts. My daughter told her pre-school at the top of her voice that daddy has a big willy, but you just have to take it in your stride and have a giggle.”
5 tips for dealing with a self-investigating tot
1. Distract him. If you’re at home, offer a toy that he’ll need to hold with his hands. Or introduce a new idea for play, something simple like getting the crayons out. It’s possible he’s just bored.
2. Keep verbal explanations simple. Phrases like, ‘That’s not something that we do’ is enough. You don’t need to go into why you’re saying that.
3. Offer hugs and affection. Sometimes it could just be your child is tired or wants a cuddle.
4. Don’t make a big deal about it. Drawing attention to what he’s doing all the time means he’ll do it again. It’s the same if you laugh when he says a naughty word. The attention is interpreted as praise.
5. Don’t get angry. “Sharp words will lead to children hiding their feelings,” says Miriam Stoppard. “Say ‘Mummy doesn’t mind it but other people might’.”
“Henry is really into women’s breasts! He talks about them all the time. It’s very sweet, he thinks I have the biggest breasts in the world.”
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