Infants are developing their capacities for trust and pleasure as they are cared for. Infants are learning if they can trust others. “Will I be fed? Will I be cuddled when I cry?” The relationship between an infant and her or his primary caregivers is the child’s first relationship and takes place during an accelerated period of childhood learning and development. Babies who feel loved and secure through their relationships with primary caregivers are in the process of developing the capacity for caring interpersonal relationships, a cornerstone of healthy sexuality in adult life.
Much of an infant’s learning is body (sensory) related, focused on touch, smell, etc. One of the first things they learn about is their own body. Parents and caregivers should help infants to feel good about their bodies. Boys discover their penises at around 7 or 8 months (same as their hands and feet) and girls typically discover their vulvas at around 9 or 10 months. Infant boys regularly have erections when awake and asleep and infant girls will lubricate. These are not responses to erotic stimulation but rather are natural responses to touch, friction, or the need to urinate. In other words, they are physical reflex responses.
Bath and diaper changes are times that many parents and caregivers use to begin to teach children the names of body parts. This should include the genitals. Learning the correct names of the parts of the body will facilitate a child’s comfort with their own body. Developing a comfort with one’s own body from the beginning of life can play a constructive role in the positive expression of sexuality and the maintenance of sexual and reproductive health throughout life. For example, a woman who has grown up familiar with and comfortable looking at and touching her genitals will be more likely to be aware of problems with her sexual/reproductive health and to seek medical attention when necessary than a woman who feels uncomfortable and shameful. Babies will explore their genitals during diaper changes. (7 to 10 months) This is not masturbation in the adult sense but it is learning that touching various parts of the body can feel good. Parents and caregivers who help infants give proper names (e.g., vagina, penis) to their genitals and who instil a sense of comfort, as opposed to shame, with all parts of the body are making a positive contribution to the overall development of the child.
During the first 18 months of life, children are beginning to learn the differences between males and females and beginning the process of identifying themselves as either male or female. Before they reach the age of two most children have recognized that the people around them can be identified as either female or male. These capabilities are among the initial components of gender and gender role development that will be solidified in the years to come.
Before they reach age 3, most children will have begun to assert their will as part of a process of developing a sense of autonomy. This is the very early and tentative beginning of the process whereby a child builds a sense of self and of the ownership of one’s own body, key factors in the positive development of sexual health.
Babies need to be with other babies. By being with and playing with other similarly aged children, infants have an early learning opportunity in how to form social and interpersonal relationships, key to development of healthy sexuality.
- Capacity to trust caregivers
- Capacity to experience sensory (touch) pleasure
- Distinguishes between male and female
- Begun to develop a sense of autonomy
- Begun first social/play interactions with peers.
- Explores own body, including genitals
- Spontaneous, reflexive sexual response (erection, lubrication)
- Enjoys touch from caregivers
- Enjoys nudity
- Signs of possible sexual abuse (e.g., trauma to genitals)
- Child is resistant or fearful of touch from caregivers
- Teach correct names of body parts, including genitals
- Help child differentiate male and female
- Affirm child’s capacity to experience pleasure from touch (i.e., cuddling, non-sexual caress)
- Provide opportunities for social interaction with same age peers.