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Ask Dr. Meg: Self Soothing and Masturbation in Young Children

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Dr. Meg Meeker

Hello Dr. Meeker!

I have a 4 year old girl who likes to, for lack of better word, masturbate/ touch herself every day during nap time. This time is complete with heavy breathing and will usually continue until she drifts off to sleep.  We have told her to not do this, but it’s a daily battle of catching her doing it, telling her to stop, then checking on her minutes later to find her doing it again.  It should be noted that I remember her doing this before she turned 1 year old – while in the high chair, in the baby carrier, and in bed. We joked she was giving herself an “ab workout” but one day, about a year ago, we noticed the heavy breathing and realized what she was doing.

As a Christian mother, this bothers me. The counsel I have sought out says that this is not a sexual thing to her; but what could this lead to? Do we address it and ask her to stop? Or do we just ignore it?

Thank you. I hope you can answer this as this is very concerning for me.

Thanks.

Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom-

I know that this is very concerning to you but in fact, it is not uncommon and it does not lead to bizarre sexual behavior down the road. Many children do things to self soothe like twirl their hair, suck their thumbs, bang their heads and your daughter stimulates herself. She is not acting out sexually at all- she has simply found something that soothes her and feels good.

Some children do this type of repetitive activity out of a compulsion because they have underlying tendencies toward obsessive-compulsive behavior. If this is the case, the OCD simply shows up as repetitive self stimulation. I’m not stating that your daughter does have OCD- I’m simply saying that this behavior can be a red flag.

Here are some things that I recommend you do:

Approach this in a matter of fact manner. This bothers you, not her. She doesn’t know the sexual implications- so don’t put them on her. She has no reason to feel ashamed and if you communicate to her that this is immoral or that she is bad, you will make her confused and distressed.

Help her find other ways to she can self soothe. Ask her to go to the store with you and pick out something soft to rub when the urge strikes- a stuffed animal, blanket with silk trim or something else- instead of rubbing herself. Ask her what else she thinks she can do instead to make herself feel good. If this is too difficult, you can simply choose to ignore it and it will go away on its own.

Tell her that her desire to make herself feel good is normal. Then, tell her that sometimes rubbing herself in her private areas may cause her to get sore and you want to help her find something different to do instead.

Tell her she must keep this behavior private. Tell her that other children calm themselves in less private ways so they can do it in public, but she should not do this in front of friends.

Be patient. As she matures, she will begin to understand that this is private activity. She won’t do this at school in the first or second grade. In fact, she may spontaneously give it up on her own. But don’t be surprised if another behavior replaces it.

Again, this is not a sign that something is deeply wrong with her so don’t see it this way. If you find that she has other compulsive behaviors down the road, see your pediatrician.

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