Bringing home a new baby is a mixture of unparalleled joy and equally intense stress. Bottle or breast, crib or co-sleep, cloth or disposable diapers, and so on.
The last thing on your mind is probably the sexuality of your tiny infant.
Many parents cringe at the mention of sex in relation to their children. We don’t want to think of our innocent children as sexual beings but they are, especially in relationship to how they perceive their own body.
Pleasure seeking (and pain avoidance) is one of our primary instincts at birth. Babies are hardwired to seek closeness and touch which causes hormones that enhance brain development.
Sexuality is so much broader than just sex and as such it starts way before our kids ask about intercourse. Sexuality affects our self-image and the way we interact with others in non-sexual and in sexual relationships.
Whether or not we’re comfortable with it, humans are sexual beings and our understanding of our sexuality affects everything else in our lives. The World Health Organization defines sexuality as:
Sexuality is a central aspect of being human throughout life and encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction. Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, practices, roles and relationships. While sexuality can include all of these dimensions, not all of them are always experienced or expressed. Sexuality is inﬂuenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors.
The good news is parents are the single most important factor in developing a healthy sexuality.
We are the first people to give our children pleasure (hugs, cuddles, boo-boo kisses), the first to teach them about their body, and their models for adult sexuality.
The way we respond to children’s actions and ideas can either enhance or cripple their developing sexuality.
And it all starts well before the first “birds and bees” discussion. You can start right now with your tiny newborn.
Infants are naturally curious about their bodies. Even before speech, they play with their feet, ears, nose, everything! So, of course, they find their genitals interesting too.
Diaper changes and bath time are a great opportunity to teach your kids about their bodies.
I talk a running commentary to my babies all day. Hearing language is important so i just narrate everything I’m doing, including diaper changes.
This is also a great time to practice if saying “vulva” and “scrotum” makes you blush! Get used to it when they’re little and you’ll be a pro by the time they come to you with questions.
Speaking of vulvas. Yes, you need to use the real words for body parts. Why? Well first, it is just respect. I don’t generally think we do any good to our kids to dumb down concepts. Kids like to be leveled with as equals.
But secondly, your child needs the vocabulary to communicate about her own body. As mentioned in 10 Ways To Talk To Your Kids About Sexual Abuse, a child can not tell you that something is wrong if they don’t have words to explain it.
Don’t worry if the idea of using medical words scares you. That’s ok. Most of us grew up not talking about our “wee wees” or “privates”. If you need a refresher on the real names for our anatomy check out Planned Parenthood’s simple refresher on male and female reproductive anatomy.
The most important thing to remember is that you are teaching them about their bodies, no matter what you do or say. Make what you do and say what you want them to learn.
|You say/do…||Your child learns…|
|(While diaper changing) look embarrassed, stammer, and rush out a “that’s your wee wee” while finishing the diaper change as fast as possible.||Mommy sounds funny when she talks about this but not when she talks about my elbow.There must be something different about this “wee wee.”|
|Instead say “mommy’s washing your testicles and penis” the same as you say “mommy’s washing your ears.”||I have a body that has ears, nose, penis, testicles, etc. Mommy likes to tell me about my body so she must like my body.|
|Rush in a panic to shut the bathroom door because your kid saw you naked||Naked is not ok. I should hide my body.|
|Instead just naturally go about your business. Bathe with your kids in the room (or take baths with them). This goes for opposite sex parents too.||Mommy is naked and I’m naked too. Mommy has ears and nose but she doesn’t have a penis.|
|Your baby boy is playing with his penis. You shoo his hand away and tell him not to touch.||Mommy doesn’t care when I touch my toes, why is touching this area “bad”?|
|Instead treat it like you would the foot-play. You don’t want to over do it or ignore it. “What do you got there? Is that your penis?” in a “parentese” voice. The time will come for “I see you are touching your penis. That’s fine but we only do that at home,” or something along those lines relating to public behavior.||When I touch my body mommy tells me the words for my body parts. She thinks my body is a good thing.|
|Your toddler sees their opposite-sex sibling’s genitals during a diaper change and reaches out to touch it. You visibly freak out and exclaim “No! Don’t touch!”||Mommy touches my body all the time but I’m not allowed to touch the baby’s body. The baby’s body must be bad or my touch must be bad.|
|Instead remain calm. Curiosity is completely normal regarding body differences. I’ll admit that I let my 2 year old daughter touch her brothers’ penises once when they were first born and if she were older I would let her change their diapers so it isn’t “scandalous” for an older child to touch a baby’s genitals. I’d say “that’s his penis. We don’t touch other people’s genitals without permission.” And sometimes I add “your brother’s genitals are his and yours belong to you. You shouldn’t let anyone touch them without permission.” I don’t make a cliff note about doctors and adults because I think they need permission too. I don’t want my daughter to blindly trust grown ups. No one, even a doctor, has a right to touch her if she is uncomfortable.||People are different. They have different bodies and that is good. I have control over my body and who touches it and so do other people.|
As adults, we have all kinds of value judgments about genitals. They are good or bad, allowed here but not there, used for this but not that.
But kids aren’t born with these rules. Some of them you will need to teach your kids (public nudity is frowned upon) but in the early years, the most important thing is that you teach them their bodies are good, normal, and pleasurable things and that it belongs to them.
Avoid anything that would make them feel their bodies need to be hidden, that they are dirty or “secret”, or that touching them is bad.
Don’t stress about situations that seem embarrassing to you (e.g. you kids yells “I have a vagina!” to the waitress at Olive Garden. Yes, this happened.). Social appropriateness will come. In the meantime it is much more important for her to develop a healthy awareness of her body and not be shamed.
This foundation in babyhood will also help you as a parent get ready for the next stage – asking questions. Stay tuned for the follow up article about talking to toddlers and pre-schoolers about sexuality.
These are just some ways to start helping your child develop a sense of healthy sexuality. What other ways you can? Please share in the comments below!
This article is the first in a four part series on talking to your kids about healthy sexuality. Don’t forget to check out the rest of the series!
- Let’s Talk About Sex Part I: Yes, It Starts at Birth
- Let’s Talk About Sex Part II: Your Curious Toddler and Preschooler
- Let’s Talk About Sex Part III: Ok, But Where Do Babies Come From? (Coming Soon)
- Let’s Talk About Sex Part IV: Continuing the Conversation with Your Teen (Coming Soon)
Paige Stannard is a Staff Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a former NASA research librarian happy to be home raising her 3 IVF babies after nearly a decade of infertility. She blogs about infertility, parenting, and women’s issues at Baby Dust Diaries as well as being the founder of the gentle discipline site ParentingGently.com and co-founder of the breastfeeding rights site NursingFreedom.org. She likes to cook and sew and has, in general, become her mother. Happily. Follow her on Twitter @babydust.