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Kids Health QA: Dealing with a Masturbating Toddler

Q. My 18-month-old rubs his penis against his stuffed animals. I don't scold him, but is there anything I can do?

You've taken a smart approach. What he's doing is totally and completely normal: He's discovering his body, and discovering that rubbing his penis feels good. There's nothing wrong with that. By staying low-key about it, you avoid making him feel bad or ashamed about the behavior.

That said, public masturbation does have a way of making people uncomfortable. So when you are in certain situations, like at playgroup or when you have the boss over for dinner, or when you're at church (one of my children, whom I won't name for fear of embarrassment, used to rub against the pews when given the chance), it's nice to have a way to gently stop the child from doing it. Simply picking him up for a cuddle, distracting him or starting a new activity is usually all it takes, given that kids are more likely to masturbate when they're bored or need soothing. Once he's 2 or 3, you can begin to teach him that masturbation is something to do in private. Right now, he's too young to understand. If despite your best efforts, the behavior persists, talk to your doctor—but chances are, it will get better. And soon enough, he'll start doing something else in public that makes you cringe!

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