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Parents > Growth & Development > Sexual Development > Understanding Early Sexual Development
Understanding Early Sexual Development

To parents of infants and toddlers, their children's sexual development may seem a long way off. But actually, sexual development begins in a child's very first years. Infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and young school-aged kids develop an emotional and physical foundation for sexuality in many subtle ways as they grow.

Just as they reach important physical and emotional milestones, like learning to walk or recognize mom and dad, young kids hit important milestones in how they recognize, experience, and feel about their bodies, and how they form attachments to others. The attachments established in these early years help set the stage for bonding and intimacy down the line.

By understanding how your kids grow and learn, you can play an important role in fostering their emotional and physical health.

Infants and Toddlers

Babies' earliest emotional attachments are formed with their parents through physical contact that expresses their love. Being held and touched, kissed and hugged, snuggled and tickled allows babies to experience comforting, positive physical sensations associated with being loved.

The unique type of physical intimacy and emotional attachment between parent and infant can be the early foundation of more mature forms of physical intimacy and love that develop later as part of mature sexuality.

My body. Many parents have called their doctors expressing concern because their kids touch their genitals during diaper changes or their baby boys have frequent erections. They're reassured that these behaviors are perfectly normal and told that even the youngest children naturally explore their bodies. And many kids, especially toddlers, enjoy being naked.

How you react — your voice, the words you use, your facial expressions — is one of your child's first lessons in sexuality. By not responding with anger, surprise, or disapproving words, you teach your child that this curiosity about his or her body is a normal part of life.

Gender awareness. By age 2 or 3, a child starts to develop a sense of being a male or female. This awareness is called gender identity. Kids this age start to understand the difference between boys and girls, and can identify themselves as one or the other. Some people think gender identity is biologically determined and some say it's a product of a child's environment. Most likely, it's a combination of both.

And at this age kids begin to associate certain behaviors, called gender roles, with being male or female. Gender roles are culturally derived. What is masculine? What is feminine? How do boys and men behave? How do girls and women behave? As you decide what you want to teach your kids about gender roles, be aware of the messages they get both in and out of the home.

Preschool (Ages 3 to 5)

By preschool, most kids have developed a strong sense of being a boy or girl, and continue to explore their bodies even more purposefully. It's not a good idea to scold them when they touch themselves — this will only prompt a sense of guilt and shame.

Parents may, however, want to explain that even though it feels good, touching should be done in private — preschoolers are old enough to understand that some things are not meant to be public. They're also old enough to understand that no one — not even family members or other people they trust — should ever touch them in a way that feels uncomfortable.

Your preschooler will continue to learn important sexual attitudes from you — from how you react to people of the opposite sex to how you feel about nudity.

Endless questions. As kids become curious about everything, it's common for preschoolers to pose questions to their parents like "Where do babies come from?" or "Why doesn't my sister have a penis?"

When you get questions like these, try to answer as honestly and matter-of-factly as possible. Answers like "The stork brought you" not only dismiss a child's curiosity, but also make parents look less credible when kids find out the truth. Being truthful now also encourages your kids to come to you with their questions in the future.

Find out exactly what your child wants to know and then answer the specific question — there's no need to go into elaborate detail when it might not be necessary. For example, you might say that a man and woman can make a baby and that the baby grows inside the woman's belly. If this satisfies your child, you might not need to provide additional information about how the baby is actually made until later.

Playing doctor. At this stage, kids tend to be curious not only about their own bodies, but about others' too. If you find your preschooler playing doctor with another child around the same age, it's important not to overreact — to them it's just an innocent game. Of course, if an older child or adult is involved, your concern would be legitimate. Calmly ask your child to get dressed and distract him or her with a toy or game. You may want to take this as a clue that your child is curious about the body, and facilitate learning about it in some other way, like a children's book on the subject that's geared to preschoolers.

Preschool "boyfriends" and "girlfriends." Some parents of preschoolers are alarmed when they hear their kids talk about a boyfriend or girlfriend. If your youngster says this, remember that kids don't attach the same meanings to the word that adults do. Most experts agree that it's best to react to this kind of news in a neutral way — don't encourage the behavior, but don't express concern either.

Elementary School (Ages 6 to 10)

Kids this age are especially interested in pregnancy, birth, and gender roles — boys usually play with boys, and girls with girls. This is also the age where their peers and the media begin to have a bigger influence on sexual attitudes. If you aren't a reliable resource, your child may turn to a peer or perhaps an older child for information about sex, sexual organs, and reproduction — and chances are slim that the facts will be correct and that the words learned will meet your approval!

If your school-age child isn't asking you about sex, consider initiating some appropriate conversations. If you've previously said that a man and woman make a baby, now your child might want to know how. As always, be honest — kids of this age will jump to their own conclusions when they're missing information. It's not uncommon for kids in elementary school to assume that babies are made when a man and woman lie next to each other, sleep in the same bed, hold hands, kiss, or swim together.

Issues that parents of elementary school-age kids might face include:

Bad language. Children will pick up bad language and inappropriate slang from lots of places — TV, movies, their friends, and especially you, if you use it. Many times, they use these words without even knowing what they mean. It's a good idea to calmly explain why the word is inappropriate and suggest better words to use next time.

Inappropriate jokes. You'll often find kids this age giggling over "dirty" jokes about sex, body parts, sexual orientation, etc., but do they really understand them? And do they realize that some of those jokes can hurt people? As with bad language, kids often tell these jokes without understanding them.

It's important to be a good role model for your child — don't tell inappropriate jokes, especially ones that disparage a particular group of people. Tolerance and respect are learned behaviors. Calmly explain why the joke is inappropriate, then tell a more kid-friendly one as an example of an appropriate joke that will still get some laughs.

Birds do it, bees do it . . . but why? Kids sometimes see their pets or other animals engaged in sexual behaviors. Some react with surprise, disgust, or embarrassment, but most are curious even if a bit giggly. After a class trip to the zoo, the hot topic of conversation for a group of 9-year-olds is often the funny-looking mating behavior they witnessed between a pair of the zoo's creatures. When kids ask about what these animals are doing, this is another opportunity to convey the message that sexuality is a natural part of life. Encourage natural curiosity, provide accurate information, and model an attitude of respect about reproduction.

As Kids Grow

As kids continue to understand and experience their bodies, and the physical changes of puberty emerge, your attitude and acceptance will continue to play an important role in their healthy development.

As kids mature sexually, they're often both excited and scared about growing up — especially when they notice hair growing in new places, get their periods, or start having wet dreams. They spend a lot of time wondering if they're "normal" and comparing themselves with their friends. Kids — especially early and late bloomers — need lots of reassurance as they head into this uncharted territory.

Puberty can be a very confusing time, with lots of physical and emotional changes, and kids need to know what to expect in the months and years ahead, even if they're too shy to ask.

By being open to your young child's questions about bodies, babies, love, and sex, you set the stage for continued conversations and openness when puberty begins. Welcoming the questions about your child's changing body and sexual issues — and not treating them as dirty or embarrassing subjects — will help foster a healthy sense of self-acceptance in your child. It also makes it more likely your child will use you as a resource for information and guidance.

Gathering written materials, like pamphlets or books, might help you find effective ways to provide the facts about sex, sexual health, and the physical changes your child may be going through.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2011

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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