Sexual Health Development
Sexual health development is a normal part of your child’s development. Sexual health development begins at birth. There are several stages of sexual development. These stages include an increased understanding of relationships, sexuality, family, cultural norms, and moral values. Social interactions and engaging in appropriate behaviours are important elements of growing up.
The best time to start communicating healthy sexual information with your child is in the early stages of development. The building blocks of sexual health are laid throughout childhood.
Sexual Health Development 0-2
Your relationship with your baby will help them feel loved and secure. Through this relationship, your baby will develop the ability to trust, relate to others, express their needs, and experience well-being.
Giving Body Parts the Correct Name
During bath time and diaper changes, begin to teach your child the proper names for body parts. This will help your child to be comfortable with their own body. Avoid names that might confuse or frighten your child, such as using terms like “front bum” or “down there”. Teaching children the proper names of their body parts helps to avoid shame and confusion later in their lives.
Discovering the Body
Boys may begin to realize that they have penises at around 6 or 7 months. This is the same time as they understand their other body parts, e.g., hands and feet. Girls may discover their vulva between 6 to 8 months.
Infants and toddlers may find it soothing to stroke their vagina or penis. Many young children rub their genitals as they are drifting off to sleep. This is normal and parents should not shame or punish children for doing this.
Girls from age 1-2 may notice and pay attention to a boy’s penis. This is normal. The penis is a very visible different part of the boy’s body. Boys also get to stand to pee. Young girls may feel like they are missing out.
You may notice that your son’s penis becomes erect or your girl’s vulva is wet (lubricated) during diaper changes. This is a natural reflex response to genital touch and can also be a sign of needing to empty their bladders. This is not a sexual response; it is simply physical development and an instinctual response.
Learning About Gender
During the first 18 months of life, your child is learning the differences between males and females. Your child will also begin to identify themself as either male or female. Around 12 months, your child will begin to recognize that they are distinct from others in their environment.
At two years of age, most children may also begin to recognize that the people around them are identified as either female or male. This is part of the gender identity and gender role development of a child.
Social Skills and Healthy Relationships
Letting your child play with other children helps your child learn social skills. This is important to healthy sexual development as it helps children begin to understand how to listen to another person, how to empathize, how to be respectful, and also what is unacceptable, hurtful, or damaging in a relationship with another person.
Empathy means being able to understand another person’s feeling and situation. Empathy is an important social skill.
Having respect for someone means that you think good things about a person and that is shown in the way that you act toward them.
Sexual Health Development 2-5
Dealing with Questions
At this age, your child will have lots of questions about sexual development. Answer these questions honestly and with facts. Provide short answers. Only give as much detail as the child asks for. Keep your facial expression and body language open, honest, and accepting. Children can easily pick up on adult discomfort.
Giving Body Parts the Correct Names
Continue to teach your child correct names for body parts. Your child might get confused when other children and adults call their body parts by different names than your child has learned. If your child knows the proper names for their body parts, they will feel confidence in their knowledge about their body. Knowing the correct names for their body parts will also allow them to share information about any inappropriate touch they may experience.
During this stage of development, your child will become curious about the genitalia and gender of their friends. This can be seen through the games they play such as “I’ll Show You Mine, If You’ll Show Me Yours”, “Playing Doctor”, or “Playing House” and trying out roles such as “Mommy” and “Daddy”. This is normal. This can give you a chance to talk to your child about privacy and respect for their body and other peoples’ bodies.
Sometimes adults think that children’s sexuality is wrong because it is about sex. However, when children are playing and discovering, they are not being sexual. They are being curious, spontaneous, and playful.
Your child is continuing to learn the differences between boys and girls. Children learn about being a girl or a boy through their family, media, books, and playing with toys. Let your child play with all types of toys, regardless of the gender you may think the toy is for.
Some children will not identify with the biological sex that they were born with. At this age, some children explore identifying with both genders. Some will feel that they identify as the opposite gender to what they are biologically. This is okay but can be a confusing and difficult time for you and your child. Get support.
The biological sex is the label you are given (boy, girl) at birth based on your hormones and genitals.
The sex that you identify as (male, female, or none).
The ‘swimsuit rule’ provides children with a reference that they are familiar with and can understand easily. Simply stated, you explain to the child that:
“The parts of your body that are covered up by your swimming suit are private. They are special and you shouldn’t show them to other people. It is okay for your caregivers to see or touch these parts sometimes, like when you are having a bath or if you are hurt there. Sometimes, a doctor might need to see these parts to help you, but otherwise we keep them covered because they are special and private.”
Exploring Their Body
Your child is beginning to learn about privacy. Explain to preschoolers that touching one’s genitals is something that they should do in private, such as in their room or the bathroom. Try not to instill shame or guilt. It is okay to touch your own genitals.
It is normal for children at this age to talk about their genitals and try to look at or touch other’s genitals. Scolding children for these behaviours can instill a sense of guilt and shame. Rather than punishing children, it is important to provide them with information, including that their bodies are private. You can teach them the ‘swimsuit rule’.
Modelling Healthy Sexuality
You are a role model for your children in all aspects of your life. It is important for you to understand that your reactions to the opposite sex, body parts, sexuality, nudity, and questions will influence your child’s view of sexuality, gender, and sexual health.
Social Skills and Healthy Relationships
Encourage children to show affection appropriately and respectfully. This could include teaching a child to ask, “Is it okay if I give you a hug?” It is also important to teach children to observe body language of others and to not force touch on anyone who backs away or looks uncomfortable.
Model this to your children, e.g., give a hug to show you care – always asking first. Don’t force your child to give a hug to someone if they are uncomfortable.
Allow children to interact with children of the opposite sex so they are comfortable relating to others and are able to develop relationships/friendships beyond gender boundaries. Provide guidance on respect for others as needed. Teach respect for space, bodies, ideas, and feelings.
Links to Further Information
- American Academy of Pediatricians: Sexual Behaviours in Young children: What’s Normal, What’s Not
- Saskatchewan Prevention Institute: Sexual Health
- Saskatchewan Prevention Institute: Learning about my Body. Birth to Two Years of Age
- Saskatchewan Prevention Institute: Learning about my Body: Two to Five Years of Age
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