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Handling a Touchy Subject

Rachel Krasny, of Scotch Plains, NJ, will never forget the night her mom watched 3-year-old Sarah. "We came home to find Mom horrified  -- apparently, Sarah had started fondling herself while watching a video," Krasny says.

As disconcerting as it may be for you  -- not to mention an unsuspecting relative  -- to see your child masturbate, it's actually quite typical, even for young kids. She may need to comfort herself or ease anxiety, says Cheryl Roberts, director of education at the Gesell Institute of Human Development in New Haven, CT.

While this behavior isn't something you usually have to worry about, here's how to deal:

• Try to react calmly. Overreacting or forbidding your child to masturbate could just make her do it even more, and there's no need for her to feel she's misbehaved.

• Give her something else to do. If the time or place is inappropriate, distract her. Suggest a favorite CD or snuggling with a lovey.

• Talk about privacy. A 3-year-old is a little young to fully grasp the concept, but you can tell her that what she's doing should only be done when she's by herself.

• Trust your instincts. If it seems like your child is masturbating a lot, talk to your pediatrician. Something may be causing her a lot of stress.