Baby discovers his sexuality

Sexuality is still too often associated to genitality and is actually much more complex. It sends back to notions of love, affection, commitment, tenderness, sensuality, pleasure, self-realization, genitality, etc. Because it is a component of human life that is as important as physical, mental and emotional well-being, it deserves special attention. Its importance is crucial in a baby’s or a toddler’s development. For a better understanding of a child’s sexuality, the following paragraphs describe the main steps of psychosexual development in children aged 0 to 6 years. Considering that every child develops at their own rhythm, ages are indicated for information purposes only.

The psychosexual development of the baby and the child aged 0 to 6 years. 
From 0 to 15 months old: A little being of pleasure!

The baby’s sexuality first develops through the sense of taste. The mouth is the prime erogenous zone. The intense pleasure induced by non-nutritive sucking, breastfeeding and bottle-feeding is the first manifestation of human sexuality. This first feeling of sexual arousal occurs first in a feeding context.  As he grows up, the baby discovers slowly his environment with his lips and tongue. Consequently, it is not rare to see a baby suck his foot, his thumb or his blanket with obvious pleasure. The sense of touch also grows in importance. Just think of the little one eating alone with his hands, the pleasure he feels when he plays with food and when he licks his fingers! In short, the baby first explores his body and his environment with his mouth, then with his hands. 

Also, with all your caring ways, the baby discovers his body even further, in both sensual and sensorial ways. The softness of a tender kiss, the warmth of your skin against his, the gentle touch of the wind as you change him, the lightness of the water when you bathe him, the firmness of your touch when you massage him are all examples of events that have an impact on your baby’s sexuality and sensuality. It is therefore absolutely normal for your little one to have spontaneous genital reactions (erections for boys and vaginal lubrication for girls) because they are reflex physical phenomena in response to the touch, to friction or to the need to urinate.

In the same vein, it is perfectly normal that he touches his sex organs, just like he would discover his ear or his foot. 

Your many attentions will also help your baby develop a feeling of physical and affective security as well as a feeling of love and trust that will help form his personality. Furthermore, you play an important role in the development of his sexual identity as you provide him, from birth, with characteristics that are specific to his biological gender (voice, choice of toys, choice of colors, choice of clothes, etc.) In brief, the sexuality is truly in place during the first months of the baby’s life.

From 15 months to 3 years: your baby is King!

With the initiation to pot training, your baby discovers a new erogenous zone: the anus. The excitement then comes with the pleasure felt when he releases or retains fæces. It is the physiological release of tension that induces great pleasure to the toddler. He then becomes aware that he masters his body and that he can have some control over his environment, including his parents. For example, he can "push" at the right time, or he may hold back to test the reaction of his parents or guardians. Becoming aware of his power over himself and others, the child quickly develops a sense of autonomy.

This step is usually accompanied by the "NO" phase, as part of his desire to affirm himself. It also coincides with the emergence of the language. The young child likes to identify the parts of his body and his environment. It is a nice opportunity for the parent to teach him a common and correct language to discuss his sex organs. They will also be explored a little more as, without a diaper, the child can easily touch it and experience pleasure through it. It is therefore possible to see a little girl rocking back and forth on a bouncing object such as a stuffed toy.

About the sexual identity of the little one, it keeps getting stronger, especially when he manages to see his own sex organs and those of the opposite sex. Around two or three years old, even though the child is able to identify his own sex and that of the others, he can be ambivalent of the permanence of his own sex. For example, a little boy can wonder if he will become a little girl one day. Also, through the eyes of his parents and others around him, the toddler will be inclined to adopt feminine or masculine characteristics, which will also help to develop their sexual identity.

Between 3 and 6 years old: a curious explorer!

Once more, a new erogenous zone is discovered: the sex organs, meaning the penis and the vagina. The young child will explore more deeply his genitality and the associated pleasure. At this stage of psychosexual development, masturbation is highly prevalent in a majority of toddlers. For example, it is not rare to see a child of that age caressing his sex organs in front of the television or during a meal.

Some parents may feel uneasy when confronted to their little child’s autoerotic behaviour and ignore how to react and intervene. The child is now old enough to make cognitive associations and this is a great opportunity for the parents to teach the notion of intimacy to their toddler. To avoid an association between the search for pleasure and doing something wrong, the parents should avoid associating the term “secretly” to the concept of privacy. The concept of privacy is highly relevant for the toddler as it strengthens his feeling of being sole owner of his body while teaching him the rules of society. Regarding masturbation, many parents wonder when it may become problematic for their child. Masturbation becomes disturbing when it leads to physical pain, when it is compulsive or when it becomes the main interest of the child. If it does, seek professional help.

In connection with the previous stages of psychosexual development, the sexual identity of the young child continues to grow. Between three and five years old, the child understands that his biological gender is permanent. Between five and six years old, a strong sense of belonging to his own sex is felt. To achieve this, the young child goes through a variety of explorations, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. The child who shows off his private parts in front of his family or the one who plays doctor is not perverted. This is a typical behaviour for a child at this stage of psychosexual development. This sexual exploration allows him to compare himself, to reassure him in his normality and to assert his sexual specificity. Sexual play is not worrisome; it is beneficial. The parent can still discreetly make sure that there is no significant age gap and that everyone participates voluntarily.

The curiosity of the little child is also expressed through his questions. He wonders about the differences between the sexes, about birth, about relations between men and women, etc. Moreover, several questions are asked regarding these matters. For example: “Where does the baby come out?”, “Where do I come from”, “Why can’t I marry daddy?”.

The easiest way to answer these questions is to just plain answer, honestly and in an adapted language without trying to explain more than the little one asks. It is also a great opportunity to offer the child a book about sexuality that is appropriate for his age so he can find answers to his questions at his own pace. To speak openly and frankly about sexuality as well as basic safety rules will help him to get to know his body and develop his self-esteem.

In short, "The sexuality of young children is a story of love, growth, discovery, beauty, laughter and giggles of pleasure and" tickling "..." (Robert, 1999)

The parent is the most important agent of sexuality and sexual health for his child. I invite you to question your own values about sexuality before beginning the sexual education of your child. Answer the following questions: What sexual education have you received? What kind of sexual education would you have liked to receive? How do you see human sexuality? Are you comfortable discussing sexuality with your child? What topics are more difficult to address and why? What would you contribute to your children’s sexuality? These reflections will certainly help guide your future educational interventions about sexuality or be better equipped to handle it.


  • Robert, Jocelyne. 1999. Parlez-leur d’amour… et de sexualité. Québec : Les Éditions de l’homme. 185 pages.
  • Société des Obstétriciens et Gynécologues du Canada (SOGC). 2006. « La sexualité et le développement de l’enfant » . In ma : Pour accéder à un mieux-être sexuel. En ligne. Consulté le 19 janvier 2009.
  • Viau, Marie-France. Frédérique Saint-Pierre. 2006. La sexualité de l’enfant expliquée aux parents. Montréal : Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine. 197 pages.

By Christine Morin, graduate student in sexology at CRP Les Relevailles de Montréal

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