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Ask Dr. Sears: Masturbation in Preschoolers

Q. My 3½-year-old daughter is having an issue with what everyone is calling masturbation. But I like to think of it as a self-soothing technique that she does whenever she's stressed out. It's starting to concern me because it's reached the point where she won't stop doing it to play with a new toy or even her friends. Is this a passing phase, or should we actively be doing something to get her to stop?

A. Your daughter has discovered what is pleasurable and makes her feel good. Just as she's exploring the feelings and workings of other parts of her body, she's also appreciating the feelings that touching her genitals give her. This is a normal stage of body discovery and does not mean that your child has an underlying psychological problem.

Like all pleasurable activity, however, genital play can become emotionally and physically harmful. From a physical standpoint, excessive rubbing can result in urinary tract infections (especially in girls, due to the shortness of the urethra  -- the urinary opening between the bladder and the vagina). If the genital play becomes so frequent and intense that the child withdraws from other normal childhood activities and interactions, as your child seems to be doing, it's wise to intervene. Try these techniques:

Distract and substitute. Get her attention, and substitute a more attractive activity, such as an outing to the park, a movie, or some playtime together. Continue to keep her occupied with social activities by inviting friends over and arranging for her to go to their homes, too. Be sure the children are supervised when they play together in her room. Keep an "open door" policy so that you can intervene when she begins genital massage while her friends are visiting.

Give alternative tension releasers. You may be right that she's using genital massage as a tension reliever. When she begins touching herself, take it as clue that she needs soothing. Offer to give her a back rub while you play a calming song.

Whatever techniques you employ, be sure to encourage your child to appreciate how marvelously designed her body is. You don't want her to grow up believing certain body parts are "bad" or that it's wrong to touch them. As she matures, her preoccupation with her private parts will subside. Within a couple years, she'll be too aware of appropriate behavior to keep fondling her genitals in public.