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Childhood sexuality

7-minute read

Key facts

  • It’s normal and healthy for children to show age-appropriate interest in sex and to express sexual behaviours.
  • Masturbation is a healthy part of development.
  • Comfortable reactions and good communication can help your child to develop positive attitudes about sexuality and reduces the likelihood of shame.
  • Certain overtly sexual behaviours may suggest that a child has been exposed to adult sexual situations or possible sexual abuse.

Normal sexual behaviour in children

Sexuality is a natural part of being a whole person. Being curious about and feeling comfortable with sexual identity is part of your child’s healthy development. You can help them to do this by talking openly about sex and sexuality.

It’s normal and healthy for children to engage in sexual behaviour that’s appropriate for their age. This includes:

  • masturbation
  • curiosity about their own and other people’s bodies
  • asking about sexuality

From the time they are only a few weeks old, babies will touch and explore their bodies. Masturbation normally begins in infancy.

Parents often don’t expect this sort of behaviour, and you may feel worried or uncomfortable about it. But babies are not born feeling ashamed, embarrassed or guilty about their bodies. They learn these ideas from the verbal and non-verbal messages they get from you and other adults.

It’s also normal for young children to be curious about bodies, particularly those of the opposite sex. When children reach the stage of asking and learning names for things, teach them the correct names for body parts.

It’s important not to confuse our ideas and values on sexuality with what’s normal, curious behaviour for children.


Masturbation is a healthy part of development. When a young child masturbates, it’s best to ignore it or handle the situation carefully. Make sure they don’t feel ashamed or guilty.

As your child grows older, help them understand that while the behaviour is normal, it’s best done in private.

Sexual behaviours in children

Many children engage in sexual behaviours at some stage of childhood. Curiosity and experimenting are behind these normal behaviours.

Childhood sexual behaviours considered normal are interactions between children of a similar age that are:

  • spontaneous
  • non-coercive (one child is not persuading or forcing another child to be involved)
  • not distressing
  • infrequent

An example may be: a game of 'You show me yours, and I'll show you mine' with a friend of about the same age.

Children can normally be easily redirected to other play. When suggesting they play something else, talk in a way that does not make the children feel ashamed or guilty.

When you clearly explain limits, children can understand what is appropriate.

Uncommon or problematic sexual behaviours

Problematic sexual behaviours can include behaviour that:

  • is persistent (ongoing)
  • targets a more vulnerable child
  • is distressing to others
  • keeps happening even when parents or other adults have intervened

Sexual behaviour that does not match your child’s age or developmental stage are also problematic.

If you are worried, talk to a child health nurse, your doctor or paediatrician.

Developing positive attitudes to sexuality

All babies and children enjoy their bodies and have good feelings about them. Adult values and attitudes are shown to children through:

  • what you and other adults do or say
  • how you do or say it
  • what you don't do or say

It’s vital to keep communication between yourself and your child open and positive. It’s good if this begins as early as possible, so that it will continue into their teen years. Try to:

  • find out what your child knows
  • calmly answer any sexual questions they have with facts
  • correct any misinformation

Comfortable reactions and communication help children to have positive ideas about the role that sexuality plays in our lives. Remember:

  • sexuality is natural
  • sexual behaviours in children are normal
  • comfortable communication helps develop positive ideas about sexuality, and reduces the likelihood of shame developing

Signs of sexual abuse

Certain overtly sexual behaviour may mean that a child has been exposed to adult sexual situations or possible sexual abuse. Sexual abuse can be physical, verbal or emotional. It can include being exposed to pornographic images.

You should be concerned if your child:

  • plays with toys or other children in an inappropriate way
  • Shows greater sexual knowledge than expected for their age
  • shows persistent sexual themes in their play or art
  • hints at sexual activity through their comments or actions
  • masturbates more than what’s appropriate for their age and stage of development
  • starts to wet the bed again

If your child is showing any of the above signs, talk to a:

  • child health nurse
  • your doctor
  • a paediatrician (doctor specialising in children’s health)

Always seek professional advice if you think that your child may have been sexually abused.

If you are concerned about the possible sexual abuse of any child, you can:

Bravehearts provides details of where to report child sexual abuse or suspected sexual abuse in your State or Territory.

Resources and support

For more information or support, visit or call:

  • Parentline in your state or territory
  • kids helpline — webchat or call on 1800 55 1800 (there is a section for parents on the website)
  • Bravehearts — dedicated to the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse — call 1800 272 831

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2023

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Need more information?

Sexual behaviour: toddlers | Raising Children Network

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Sexual behaviour: preschoolers | Raising Children Network

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How to talk to children about sex who have a cognitive disability? - Sexual Health Victoria

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Protect your child from sexual abuse | NT.GOV.AU

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During and after childhood cancer - Cancer Council Victoria

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Developmentally appropriate sexual behaviour in children | Community support | Queensland Government

Find out what is considered normal sexual behaviour in children.

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Consent: talking with children & teens | Raising Children Network

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Child sexual grooming: spotting the signs | Raising Children Network

Grooming is when a person gets friendly with a child or family for later sexual abuse. Signs include a person taking special interest in a family or child.

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Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

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