Can you masturbate before puberty?

Masturbation: How Children Learn Lust

Contrary to what was assumed in earlier times, a person's sexuality does not only develop in their teenage years. Even toddlers and even babies create beautiful feelings. What parents about the topic of children and masturbation should know.

Text: Anja Lang
Images: Pexels & Lina Scheynius

When the mother of six-year-old Ida opens the bathroom door, she sees her daughter in the shower, the jet of water directed at the genital area and making ecstatic sounds. She quickly closes the door and asks herself: Is that normal at that age? Should I be worried? Should I address that?

When parents are confronted with the sexuality of their children, many react insecure or even embarrassed. In a certain way, this is normal and understandable. "Human sexuality is not designed to be shared with parents, siblings or other close relatives," says Esther Schütz, clinical sexologist and sex pedagogue and former head of the Institute for Sex Education and Sex Therapy (ISP) in Uster. "In addition, there are attitudes, beliefs and shame boundaries that fuel possible uncertainties."

And, although sexuality is almost ubiquitous in our society, it is still taboo in relation to children. "Children are very much sexual beings," says Schütz. "Even babies and toddlers experience sexual arousal without consciously associating it with sexuality." Sexuality is a natural part of the healthy development of children. "Many parents know very little about child sexuality and think that it basically only begins with puberty," says the sex therapist. "But that's not the case!"

Sexual beings from the start

The sexual arousal reflex is created in humans from the beginning, just like the sucking or grasping reflex. Ultrasound can already be observed in the womb to see that male fetuses have an erection. In the case of female fetuses, this cannot be represented so well for anatomical reasons. And newborns can also have a spontaneous erection of the penis or clitoris.

Boys already learn to increase arousal by hand at the age of two to three. Girls often lag behind in this developmental step.

"Over time, the toddler then learns that increased blood flow to the genitals creates pleasant sensations," explains the sex educator. "So sexuality is a skill that people learn." As soon as babies at around three to six months have developed the muscles to turn from back to stomach, they unconsciously learn to trigger the sexual arousal reflex by tensing and relaxing the pelvic floor muscles through the expanded movement patterns. “This happens in a very playful way through the experience of turning or playing with the legs,” explains Schütz. "In doing so, important nerve connections are made, just like with other sensory experiences."

Later, as a toddler between the ages of one and three, patterns develop from this. "You can then observe that children rub themselves on the floor while crawling, hop around on a pillow or clamp a cuddly toy between their legs to trigger the reflex and discharge", describes the sexologist. "Some children roll their eyes or sweat profusely."

Effects on Sexuality in Adulthood

The next important step in children's sexual development is touching one's gender with the hand. "When the tactile sense is added, the sensations become understandable in the truest sense of the word," emphasizes the sex expert. "Boys already learn at around two to three years of age to increase arousal with the hand by touching and pressing the penis."

However, girls often lag behind boys in this developmental step. "Because girls' gender is turned inwards, they cannot see it without a mirror," says Schütz. "This means that they often only perceive it inadequately and touch their vulva less often or not at all." This can have an impact on sexuality in adulthood, because the woman then does not know how to stimulate herself with the hand. "You then need an enormous amount of muscle tension and pressure or the deep penetration of a man to achieve orgasm," says Schütz.

Stages of sexual development

0 to 2 years

The sexual arousal reflex is already established before birth. At first, the baby perceives pleasant and pleasant sensations primarily through the skin through gentle stroking and caressing, as well as through the mouth when sucking. By tensing and relaxing the pelvic floor muscles, the toddler gradually learns to trigger the arousal reflex itself.

3 to 6 years

From around kindergarten age, boys begin to increase their pleasure by touching the penis with their hands. Girls tense the pelvic floor muscles and use the hand or the shower head. So-called doctor games, in which children show each other their gender and examine each other, are usually organized by children of preschool age between 4 and 6 years.

7 to 9 years

Primary school age is characterized by shame and the first signs of separation from parents. For this, friendships and also the first infatuation with peers are more important. Masturbation usually takes place in secret.

10 to 12 years

The onset of puberty is noticeable and the influence of the parents continues to wane. Interest in the opposite sex increases and masturbation is increasingly targeted.

13 to 16 years

Physical changes are now clearly visible. Sexual acts are purposeful and targeted towards a potential sexual partner. The influence of parents is no longer desired.

Touch and name the gender

The sex educator therefore advises parents of little girls to lovingly accompany their daughter in the healthy development of her sexuality by explaining to her that she can look at her own gender with the help of a mirror. It is good if you also state this specifically. «In a suitable situation, when washing, changing diaper or while dressing and undressing, you can say to the child: 'Look, you can't see it from above, but you can see your vagina with the mirror. It belongs to you and you can touch it too ›» says Schütz.

The child's preoccupation with their own gender is not targeted, but is used as an opportunity to feel good.

Because a healthy development of childish sexuality not only plays an important role for the fulfilled sexuality in later adulthood, it also helps to protect the child from possible abuse. Esther Schütz: "Only when the child knows and has learned to appreciate their gender can they protect it."

It is also important for parents to know that child sexuality differs from adult sexuality in very important ways: "Child sexuality is never purposeful and always related to itself," explains the sex therapist. “The child does not judge sexuality, but perceives the sensations as one of many sensory stimuli that produce pleasant feelings. The preoccupation with one's own gender is therefore not - as with adults - geared towards an orgasm, but rather is used as one of several ways to feel good and experience relaxation. "Only at the start of puberty, when the hormones come into play, does child sexuality gradually develop in the direction of adult sexuality, which is geared towards a goal and a sexual partner," says Schütz.

So masturbation in children is a positive thing. Depending on the type and age, it takes place differently often and is part of the child's healthy development. However, it also has its limits. It is important that the obvious preoccupation with one's own gender does not take place in public space. If parents observe this in their child, they should calmly but firmly point it out. «Here you can say: 'I can see that you are giving yourself pleasure. You can do that in your room. But I don't want that here ›» advises Schütz. "Further explanations or instructions should not be given, as the child in a state of heightened emotionality cannot absorb anything, let alone implement it." It is important that parents take up the topic at a later point in time and discuss it with the child.

When doctor games are okay - and when not

In preschool age children are not only interested in their own body, but also in the body of others. In so-called doctor games, they withdraw in small groups and examine and compare each other curiously, especially in the gender area. "Doctor games are a completely normal step in sexual development and are important for recognizing oneself," says the sexologist. "If parents happen to burst into such a situation, they should react as calmly as possible and, as with other games, ask what the children are playing and whether everyone agrees."

It becomes critical when one or more of the children obviously do not feel comfortable, when significantly older children are involved, or when pointed or sharp-edged objects are used. "This is where parents should step in and, outside of the game, talk to their son or daughter about the most important basic rule: I trust you that you know what you want and that you only allow what is good for you, what pleases you and what others say yes to!" , emphasizes Schütz.

"Doctor games are a completely normal developmental step and important for recognizing oneself," says sexologist Esther Schütz.

From around the beginning of school, the focus is on the feeling of shame in children. "Children are now beginning to distance themselves from their parents and need more and more space of their own," explains the sex educator. "Many then no longer want to show themselves naked and want less physical closeness." Sexual games, being in love, lovesickness etc. take place in secret and are kept secret from the parents. “These beginnings of the gradual cutting of the cord are sometimes painful for parents, but they should definitely be respected,” emphasizes the sex expert.

Masturbation in teenagers

With the onset of puberty, the demarcation from the parents reaches its climax. Parents are now “embarrassing” and young people are increasingly orienting themselves towards their peers in their peer group. Sex hormones change the body and sexuality comes more and more to the fore. Masturbation is common at this age and most parents find it normal. "Should you unintentionally join them, I advise parents to withdraw and not address the matter," advises Schütz. "Young people now find this extremely embarrassing and do not want any advice from their parents." Parents should also refrain from telling stories about their own sexuality if possible. "Mother and father keep their parenting role for life and shouldn't try to appear as a friend to their child," says Esther Schütz.

Reading tips

  • Free information brochures from the German Federal Center for Health Education:
    «Accompany with loving care»
    "Talking about sexuality"
    Download from: > Search for brochure titles
  • Esther Elisabeth Schütz, Theo Kimmich: Body and sexuality. Discover, understand, convey sensually. Atlantis 2017, 192 pages, 36 Fr.
    Can be ordered at:

Advice and help for parents on the subject of masturbation in children

Read more about child sexuality:

  • When sexuality awakens
    When children explore the world, their own bodies are part of it. But many parents do not know how to deal with the awakening sexuality of their children. Under no circumstances should you be silent, experts advise. A relaxed dealing with sex and early education promote the children's physical development.

  • Man is a cuddly toy
    Touch affects them child development crucial - infants cannot survive without them. The Need for physical contact However, it varies greatly from person to person as well as depending on age and relationship.

  • Five questions about love and sexuality
    First menstruation - or what should parents do when their daughter's boyfriend stays overnight for the first time? Questions and answers about love and sexuality from our big one 100-question dossier.