Child Sexual Development

Sexual development in babies and young children is influenced by early relationships that meet the child's physical and emotional needs (e.g., food, warmth, comfort, love). Emotional attachments and physical contact between the child and his or her parents and caregivers help form the basis for sexual relationships later in life.

Healthy sexual development in young children also involves learning about the body (including the sexual organs [genitals]) by exploring through touch. Masturbation (i.e., producing sexual pleasure by touching or rubbing the genitals) is a common behavior—beginning in infancy and continuing throughout childhood and adulthood. It also is normal for male infants and young boys to experience regular erections (hardening and stiffening of the penis).

Beginning at about two years of age, children should be taught that touching their genitals is a normal behavior that should be done in private, like bathing or showering. Young children also should be taught as early as possible that they deserve to be protected and treated with respect and that another person should never touch them in a way that makes them feel afraid, confused, or uncomfortable.

The sense of being male or female (called gender identity) is a part of sexual development that usually begins around two or three years of age and continues throughout life. Gender identity involves recognizing gender roles that are defined by society and demonstrating behaviors commonly associated with being male or female.

As children get older, sexual development also may involve a normal curiosity about others' bodies. Many children have questions about how their body differs from their mother's, their father's, their sibling's, or their friend's. It is important for parents and caregivers to answer children’s questions honestly and in simple terms that are easy to understand.

A pediatrician or other qualified health care professional can provide helpful advice about how to respond to children's questions about sexuality and address concerns about sexual development.

Interest in gender roles, reproduction, and sexuality often increases in children between the ages of 6 and 10 years. School-age children usually are able to understand the basics of human sexuality and sexual development and may turn to friends, older children (e.g., siblings, cousins), and the media (e.g., television, movies, the Internet) for information about sexuality.

It is important for parents and caregivers to let children of this age know that curiosity about sex is completely normal and that they can ask a trusted adult (e.g., parent, pediatrician, health teacher) for reliable information about sex and guidance regarding sexuality.

Some children enter puberty (stage of rapid development resulting in sexual maturity) younger than normal. This condition, which is called precocious puberty or early puberty, occurs in girls before the age of eight and in boys younger than age nine. Early puberty is more common in girls than in boys.

Signs of precocious puberty include the appearance of underarm or pubic hair, rapid growth, body odor, and acne. In girls, breast development and menstruation (i.e., menstrual periods) may occur and in boys, the penis or testicles (testes) may grow in size, the voice may deepen, and facial hair may appear.

Precocious puberty may be idiopathic (i.e., occur with no known cause). Causes for the condition include central nervous system (CNS) disorders (e.g., hydrocephalus, brain tumor, head trauma); adrenal gland, ovarian, or testicle tumors; over-exposure to hormones (e.g., in foods), including estrogen, and McCune-Albright syndrome (genetic disease that affects the bones and skin pigmentation [coloring] and may cause hormonal problems and premature sexual development). Obesity/overweight increases the risk for early puberty.

Children who experience precocious puberty should be examined and evaluated by a qualified health care specialist (e.g., endocrinologist) to determine if the condition is caused by an underlying disorder. In some cases, hormone therapy (e.g., GnRH analogs [leuprolide] to suppress hormone production) and/or counseling to help them deal with the difficult and often confusing effects of reaching sexual maturity at a young age. Without treatment, children who experience early puberty often do not reach their full adult height potential and may experience other health problems.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 26 Dec 2008

Last Modified: 15 May 2012