My daughter started masturbating at the age of two, or at least, that's how old we think she was when she first started. We thought she was having a seizure. So did the paramedics as they watched her stiff and rigid body twitch and spasm for nearly two minutes, mouth open, tongue out, eyes rolling and drooling on our living room floor. Though she appeared barely conscious, she was and would get upset and start crying if anyone managed to interrupt her.
We were admitted to the Neurology Clinic at Sick Kids Hospital and stayed for a week. Scores of tests later including an EEG and one traumatic episode where several nurses had to hold down my screaming daughter as they attempted to inject an IV into her arm in order to sedate her for an impending MRI, fearing the worst while hoping for the best, the neurologist treating her suddenly provided us with a most unexpected diagnosis: infantile masturbation.
We were relieved yet dumbfounded, grateful yet confused, happy yet a tad embarrassed to say the least. Infantile masturbation? We had never heard of it. It had never even crossed our minds.
What our daughter was doing certainly didn't look like masturbation, in the traditional sense anyway. There was no hand stimulation of any kind. And besides, we had no idea masturbation could even begin that early, genital touching and discovery sure, but not masturbation and clearly not orgasm. Well, much to our surprise, apparently it can and has been observed as early as in utero.
Unfortunately, misinformation and embarrassment among parents and even the medical community has led to many misdiagnoses among younger children, the most common of which is epilepsy. Some have even sadly been given seizure medication before discovering it was all just a case of self-gratification.
According to a 2004 review published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, "careful interrogation appears to be one of the keys to diagnosis. One of the most important symptoms is that the child may be stopped during gratification if distracted and also shows anger and annoyance when interrupted. Video recording of events has been documented to be of most help in understanding the nature of the episodes."
A video of my daughter, in fact, is what finally solved the mystery. Once I managed to record her in the act, it took all of a few seconds for the doctor to make the diagnosis of infantile masturbation. All medical concern ceased and we were sent home with no requests for follow-ups.
We were satisfied it wasn't anything serious, but we couldn't help wonder after all we'd been through whether infantile masturbation was normal -- or something to be even slightly concerned about.
"Masturbation is completely normal," says Nadine Hodgins, public health nurse at Ottawa Public Health. "It doesn't cause physical harm or pose a health risk."
Hodgins offers advice to parents on how to deal with childhood masturbation: "Talk to your child about it being a normal behaviour, that you understand it makes them feel good, that it's something that should be done in the privacy of their bedroom or in the bathroom and not in front of others.
"Don't make your child feel guilt or shame for exploring their body," Hodgins continues. "If your child is very young and doesn't understand the concept of privacy and they are touching themselves in front of others, you are best to ignore it. If you can't ignore it then try distracting them, give them a toy to play with or read them a book."
Here are more great tips on how to talk with preschool and school-aged children about sexuality from the Ottawa Public Health website. And if you're not sure, always err on the side of caution and have your child examined by a doctor.
1. Start early
"Establish a level of comfort with your child on sexuality-related topics. You'll appreciate this when your child is older, and the issues become more complex."
2. Teach the basics
"Use 'dictionary' words for body parts, in a matter of fact way (e.g., 'OK, now it's time to wash your penis'). Children will learn the correct terms -- breasts, vulvas and penises are not dirty and they have permission to talk about them. Reading a book with your child can be a wonderful way to begin discussions."
3. Bring it up
"If your child hasn't asked about where babies come from by the age of six or seven, start thinking of ways to bring the subject up. Talk about masturbation as it comes up."