Children and learning about sexuality

Preschool years

The following information can help you understand your child’s sexuality development in the years before school.

Babies learn about the world through touch. Just as they play with their fingers and toes, babies can play with their genitals when their nappy is off. This is part of their natural curiosity.

Preschool children may enjoy being naked.

Young children are curious and interested in looking at their own and other people’s naked bodies - especially genitals because they are usually covered. They will notice that boys’ and girls’ bodies are different and may ask ‘Why’ or ‘What’s that?’

They are often interested in parents’ or familiar adults’ bodies. They might ask about them or want to touch them, - eg: in the shower or bath.

By three years of age, children can say whether they are a boy or a girl. By six or seven they understand that this does not usually change. A small number of children will identify as the opposite gender to their biological sex.

Four year olds are very interested in what people do in bathrooms and toilets - they might joke about toilets and use swear words or ‘toilet words’ if they know any.

It’s common for young children to touch their genitals. They may do it because:

  • it feels good
  • it comforts them when they are worried
  • they are finding out about their body
  • they need to go to the toilet.

Tips for talking with your preschooler

It can be hard to know what to say or how to go about talking with your preschooler about sexual matters. The following tips may be useful.

Have lots of small conversations 

Start talking in age-appropriate ways when your child is young. Conversations should suit your child’s age and development.

Let the situation and your child’s questions and level of interest guide what you share. Try to be relaxed and easy so that it becomes just like any other topic you help them learn about.

Give small amounts of information

Don’t bombard your child with information. They will only take in what they can absorb. An honest, simple explanation is often all that young children need. Don’t wait to have the ‘one big talk’.

Find out what your child already knows

Ask your child what they know about a topic before you give information. 

For example, if they ask where babies come from you could ask ‘Where do you think they come from?’ or ‘That’s an interesting question – what made you think of it?’ This can help you give information in a way that suits their understanding.

Be willing to talk about topics more than once

Children often want to hear the same thing a number of times until they fully understand.

Be a ‘tell-able’ parent

Be approachable and unshakable – let your child know that this is a topic you are happy to talk about.

Start talking about bodies when your child is young

Use the correct names for body parts - eg: penis, testicles, vagina, vulva, breasts - just as you would for arms and legs. This makes it normal to talk about these things, without shame or embarrassment. 

Research shows that knowing the right names improves children’s body image and confidence.

Answer questions about where babies come from

You should answer questions in a way that is suited to your child’s stage of development. 

For example, you could say to your preschool child that ‘Babies start as a tiny egg and grow in a special place called the uterus, inside their mother’. This is usually all they want to know for a while.

Four and five year olds can understand that you need a sperm (like a seed) from a man, and an ovum (like a tiny egg) from a woman to make a baby.

You could tell older children that the sperm comes from Dad’s penis and the egg from Mum’s ovaries. 

When Mum and Dad kiss and cuddle and their bodies get very close, Dad puts his penis inside Mum’s vagina. Not all sperm find an egg to make into a baby, only special ones like the one that made you.

Be honest with your child

If your child was born using donated tissue, or is adopted, it is important to tell them. Your child’s story should be talked about in a normal and natural way. There are lots of ways families can be formed. All children have a right to know their history.

Use books to help you talk with your child

Sometimes books written for children can be useful in giving you words and pictures that suit your child’s age – read and talk about them with your child. Contact your local library for advice.

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Last updated: 11 March 2016

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