It can be an uncomfortable moment, the first time a parent notices their child becoming interested in their own genitalia, but ‘uncomfortable’ doesn’t have to be a cause for concern. Babies and toddlers are interested in their bodies because their bodies are their first and most immediate way to explore the world, and babies and toddlers are born explorers.
How early is too early?
There is no age in particular that’s too young for babies and toddlers to start getting curious about the parts of their bodies that are most often hidden by diapers, and while many children start to take a more active interest in genitalia around the age of 3 or 4, many others start much earlier. The only real limit to when this curiosity may start is when children start to have the physical coordination to explore.
Why does they do it?
Babies and toddlers are naturally curious, and their genital area is a part of their body that they don’t normally have access to, since it’s usually covered by a diaper and other layers of clothing. That alone is enough to make it interesting. As children grow into toddlers, they also start to become increasingly interested in defining sex and gender differences, which can add to their interest.
Beyond that, though it’s another thing that can be uncomfortable for parents to hear, sometimes babies and toddlers continue to be interested in their genitals because they’ve learned that touching them feels good. Babies don’t have any understanding of societal and cultural norms, and they don’t see any reason to stop themselves. It doesn’t mean they have any kind of precocious or unusual sense of sexuality, and it, too, is nothing to worry about.
How do I get them to stop?
Knowing that genital play and more general genital touching is fairly normal in babies and toddlers doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something parents are comfortable with, and since babies aren’t very well-known for their boundaries, there’s a good chance that once they discover their privates, they won’t know to keep that discovery private.
Like with so many things you don’t want your baby or toddler to do, though, while it’s still a good idea to start explanations early, the best way to get your baby or toddler to keep their hands somewhere family-friendly when they are in public is to gently redirect their attention to something else.
This can be especially important during diaper changes, since a baby or toddler’s curious exploration can turn messy quickly, so having a toy or distraction ready during changing time can be key.
As they get older and more verbal, having conversations about public and private behavior will become more appropriate, and they will be better able to understand what you mean. What you do now does lay a foundation, though, and if you react in a way that implies that there’s something wrong or shameful about your child exploring their body, that impression may stay with them as they get older.