Childhood sexual behaviour: toddlers

Childhood sexual behaviour: toddlers

Toddler sexual behaviour: what's typical?

Sexual behaviour in your toddler might be a bit confronting, especially the first time you see it. It might help to know that touching, looking at and talking about bodies is a mostly typical and healthy part of your child's development at this age.

Open and honest talk about sex, bodies and relationships will help you guide your child's behaviour now. It also lays the groundwork for future talks about sexual development, respectful relationships and sexuality. It's never too early to start talking.

Typical toddler sexual behaviour: what it looks like

Your toddler might:

  • touch or rub his genitals
  • show his genitals to someone else
  • look at or touch the genitals of familiar children or adults in a fun way during play, at bath time or in the toilet
  • repeat words, expressions and slang for toileting, body functions or body parts
  • enjoy being nude
  • show interest in body parts and how they work.

What typical toddler sexual behaviour means

The behaviour described above is typical for toddlers. Your child might behave in these ways because:

  • it feels good
  • she's learning about touch and social rules
  • she's curious about the differences between boys' and girls' bodies
  • she's working out how bodies work
  • her vocabulary and understanding of language is developing
  • she's trying to understand families and relationships.

Some sexual behaviour and sex play isn't typical and might even be a sign of something more serious. Read more about problematic sexual behaviour.

How to respond to typical sexual behaviour in toddlers

How you react is important, but your response depends on your values. Some parents are OK with this type of behaviour, and others aren't.

The most important thing is to stay calm, no matter how you plan to respond.

You can use sexual behaviour as an opportunity to help your toddler learn. Talk with your toddler and answer his questions openly and honestly, but also at a level he can understand. For example, you could talk about public and private body parts, how girls and boys are different, or ways of talking about bodies. You could say 'That is your penis. You use your penis when you do a wee. Your penis is a private part of your body' or 'Your body belongs to you. You can wash your own bottom and vulva now you're big enough. It's good to look after your body'.

When talking with your child, it's a good idea to use the proper words for body parts - vagina, vulva, breasts, penis, testicles and so on. This helps your child learn about her body and tell you clearly about any questions or concerns she has.

Sometimes you might want your toddler to stop a sexual behaviour - for example, if he's loudly asking a private question in a public place. Calmly distracting your child or finding another activity for a short while can shift his attention to something else.

You could talk to your toddler about it later when you have privacy and time.

It's important that your child knows that it's OK to be curious and it's good to talk about these topics together.