About sexual development and behaviour at 0-3 years
Sexual development starts at birth. It includes physical changes like puberty, the attitudes and beliefs children develop about sex and sexuality, and their sexual behaviour.
Sexual behaviour varies depending on children’s development, social relationships, cultural background, and personal and family experiences. But it’s common for children to enjoy being naked and to be curious about their own and other people’s bodies.
For children aged 0-3 years, sexual curiosity might include:
- touching, holding, pulling and poking their own genitals
- looking at or touching the genitals of familiar children or adults in a curious way in the bath or toilet
- showing an interest in body parts and how they work
- playing games that involve being naked or using gender-based roles, like doctors and nurses
- repeating words, expressions and slang for toileting, bodily functions or body parts.
Your child might behave in these ways because it feels good. They might also do it because they’re:
- learning about touch and social rules
- curious about the differences among bodies
- working out how bodies work
- trying to understand families and relationships
- learning and exploring new words.
Open and honest talk about sex, bodies and relationships lays the groundwork for future talks about sexual development, respectful relationships and sexuality. It’s never too early to start talking.
Responding to sexual behaviour in babies and toddlers
You can use sexual behaviour as an opportunity to help your child learn. The key is listening, talking and answering questions openly, honestly and in a way your child can understand.
At this age, you can talk about public and private body parts, differences among bodies and words for parts of the body. For example:
- ‘That is your penis. You use your penis when you do a wee. Your penis is a private part of your body.’
- ‘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 you’re 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 their body. It also gives them language they can use to ask questions or tell you about concerns.
Sometimes you might want your child to stop a sexual behaviour – for example, if they’re loudly asking a private question in a public place. You can often shift your child’s attention by:
- calmly redirecting the conversation
- distracting your child
- finding an engaging activity for your child
- promising that you’ll answer their question 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.
Harmful sexual behaviour in babies and toddlers
Sometimes sexual behaviour in babies and toddlers isn’t what’s expected for their developmental stage or isn’t socially or culturally appropriate.
And sometimes sexual behaviour in babies and toddlers is harmful to themselves or others. Harmful sexual behaviour can range from concerning to serious and extreme.
Harmful sexual behaviour in babies and toddlers might include:
- continuing to touch or rub their genitals even when someone has tried to get them to do something else
- masturbating in ways that injure their genitals
- persistently playing games that are sexual in nature like simulating sex with or without clothes
- persistently touching other people’s genitals or trying to do this even when they’ve been encouraged to do something else
- using sexually aggressive or explicit words
- using sexual acts on other children during play – for example, oral sex, masturbation, or penetration with fingers or objects.
Babies and toddlers might behave in sexually harmful ways for many reasons. For example, it might happen because they:
- have been exposed to pornography or adult sexual activity and are re-enacting what they’ve seen
- are experiencing child sexual abuse or other forms of child abuse
- find it hard to express and manage their emotions.
Getting help for harmful sexual behaviour in babies and toddlers
If you’ve noticed your child engaging in harmful sexual behaviour and they keep doing it even when you ask them to stop, it’s a good idea to seek support and professional help.
A GP or child and family health nurse is a good place to start. They can refer you to an experienced health professional who can help you understand what’s happening and how you can help your child.
Harmful sexual behaviour in children can be distressing. You can get support by contacting helplines and specialist services.