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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Child Masturbation

Q. My 2 -year-old girl gets on her belly and rocks on the floor a lot (several times a day). She acts as if she is trying to rub her lower abdomen or lower parts on the floor. She will do this for as long as I let her or until something more interesting catches her attention.

She is a very bright normal girl other than this odd behavior. Our pediatrician says not to worry about the behavior, but it is very embarrassing when she does it in front of others. Do children at this age masturbate? She acts as if she gets some sort of pleasure from doing this. I'm really concerned about her and want to know why she does this.

A. I can understand why you are concerned about your daughter's behavior, though of course, I can't tell you why she does this. I can tell you that masturbation or genital self-stimulation is found among infants and young children, and that it usually decreases or disappears with age.

In one study, 50 children (mean age = 48.7 +/- 24.5 months, 34 girls and 16 boys) with masturbation symptoms were examined at first visit to the Department of Child Psychiatry and two years later. The mean masturbation frequency at the initial interview was significantly decreased after two years. It was noted that 39 children (78%) were completely recovered, whereas 11 children (22%) continued to masturbate after two years [F. Unal, Turk J Pediatr. 2000 Oct-Dec;42(4):304-7.].

In another study [Wulff et al, Seizure. 1992 Sep;1(3):199-201], two infants, one girl, 5 months old, and one boy, 6 months old, presented with rhythmic, sustained motor activities of a stereotyped nature accompanied by moaning and grunting, facial flushing and altered awareness. The episodes occurred frequently and were initially believed to be epileptic. However, a normal electroencephalogram [measure of brain activity] during the fits and careful reviewing of videotape recordings enabled the researchers to diagnose the seizure-like episodes as masturbatory activity.

Your pediatrician may well be right, but you may also want to seek a second opinion from a pediatric neurologist, if this behavior persists. A child psychologist may also be helpful in suggesting some behavioral modification strategies to help you reduce the frequency of your daughter's behavior.

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November 2003

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