It starts in the womb: helping parents understand infant sexuality.

Author:Newman, Remi

Although it is recognized that infants and young children are sexual beings, many parents are unaware of this and are unprepared to provide the healthy guidance needed to raise sexually healthy children. This article examines "Having "the talk" before they can talk," a sexuality education workshop for new and expectant parents created and facilitated by the author. "Having "the talk" has been conducted four times with a total of 17 participants. Workshop activities and findings are discussed in the context of a literature review of research on infant and child sexuality.

From the moment they are born, infants are learning about their bodies, learning how to love and who to trust. In other words, they are learning about sexuality (Moglia & Knowles, 1997). And their parents, whether they realize it or not, are their primary teachers (Haffner, 1999).

Being a new parent can be overwhelming enough, never mind taking on the responsibility of becoming their child's primary sexuality educator. Although most parents want to be the primary sexuality educators for their children, many parents feel they didn't receive much sexuality education from their own parents and don't know how and when to begin (Richardson & Schuster, 2002). Many don't feel comfortable enough broaching the topic and never fulfill their duty as sexuality educators (Levine, 2002). For many parents, the openness and information necessary to be the sexuality educator they wish to be for their children will require practice and education (Roffman, 2001).

Rather than seeing themselves as sexuality educators for their kids, many parents instead see themselves as gatekeepers of sexuality information, not wanting them to know too much too soon (Roffman, 2001). In no other area of life do parents see a value in withholding education from their children. Parents may worry that the information itself is inherently damaging or that it will encourage sexual activity (Money, 1999; Roffman, 2001). Although studies have shown that teens who learn about sex and sexuality from their parents are more likely to postpone first sexual intercourse (American Social Health Association, n.d.; Lin, Chu & Lin, 2006). The only thing a parent may be withholding from their child is the chance to experience healthy affection, learn correct information, and the opportunity to learn their parent's values on sexuality.

"Having 'the talk' before they can talk," is a sexuality education parenting workshop designed to give parents knowledge about infant sexuality and increase their comfort with the topic, so they can be an active participant in their child's healthy sexual development from the very beginning. Workshop topics include biological gender and gender roles, responding to their infant's natural exploration of their bodies and communicating with them about their bodies. Through several interactive workshop activities, parents explore and share their personal values around sexuality and increase their knowledge of infant and child sexuality.

The goals of the workshop are:

* to increase parents' knowledge about human sexual development from birth until the toddler years, so they better understand the developmental stages their child will experience.

* to increase parents' comfort level with their child's sexuality.

* to clarify parents' personal values on sexuality and encourage them to think about how they want to impart these values to their children.

* to increase parents' ability to communicate (verbally and non-verbally) in order to facilitate an open, honest and informative dialogue with their children on sexuality


"Having 'the talk' before they can talk" has been conducted four times within the past 12 months, with a total of 17 participants. All were married and all but two participants were first-time parents. Twelve were female and five were male. Eleven had girls and six had boys. All had at least an undergraduate college education. Fourteen were white, two were Mexican and one was Mexican-American. All resided in Northern California (Sonoma County). Participants' ages ranged from 26 to 42. The ages of the participant's children ranged from 6 weeks to 3 years old.

Workshop Activities and Findings

At the start of the workshop, participants complete a pre-test (Appendix A) to assess their knowledge. During introductions, they are asked to express what they hope to get out of the workshop and any specific questions they have. An icebreaker, Find Someone Who... (Appendix B) follows. For the first activity participants get into groups of two or three. They discuss what sexuality education (if any) they received from their parents/primary caregivers, what (if anything) they would like to do the same for their children, and what they would like to do differently. This activity helps participants begin to develop a positive vision of how they see themselves as sexuality educators for their children. Participants are reminded that their parents likely knew less than they do about sexuality education and that they probably did the best they could with the information they had. Also, just the fact that they are attending the workshop shows that they want to do better and that by the end of it they will likely know more about infant and child sexuality than most people. All participants reported wanting to do a better job than their parents did. Although four out of 17 reported that they did receive some quality sexuality education, others reported receiving very little to none at all. All participants reported receiving some sort of unspoken message about sex. For example, one participant noted receiving no education at all, but getting a strong message that she was to wait until she was married to have sex. For the four (three females and one male) who reported receiving some education, in each case it was from their mother and in two cases she was a single mother.

When does sexuality begin?

In the next activity, titled Sexuality: When does it begin? (Appendix C), participants are asked to determine when various aspects of human sexual development can first happen. For example at what age can penile erection, vaginal lubrication and clitoral erection, toilet training, and possibility of orgasm first occur?

In almost all cases, participants who had baby boys reported that penile erection could first occur from birth-3 years, as they had already witnessed it. Yet, almost all participants (regardless of the gender of their child(ren)) guessed that vaginal lubrication and clitoral erection could not occur until 4-8 or even 9-12 years of age. For possibility of orgasm, five out of 17 participants answered from birth-3 years. For the other participants, answers ranged from age 4-8 up to 12-18 years of age.

When does it begin? also provides an opportunity to discuss infant's exploration of their own body (including their genitals), curiosity about other's bodies and how they are learning about love and trust through touching and holding. Most participants guessed that these aspects would first occur from birth-3 and from 4-8 years old. Almost all participants express surprise when told that all of the aspects of sexual development listed can first occur from birth-3 years and some even before, in utero. According to Parrot (1994), this is consistent with the literature.

When does it begin? gives parents a sense of what is normal behavior for their growing children. For some participants, finding out that what they have been observing is normal and healthy can be a relief. One of the couples who attended had a three year old who had exhibited masturbatory behavior from infancy. Both parents expressed that they wished they had known this information sooner, so as to save them the stress of worrying about their child and also not knowing how to respond.

Once the activity if finished, participants review a comprehensive definition of sexuality (Appendix D) that includes sexual anatomy, physiology, gender, sexual orientation, fantasies, life experiences and spirituality. This information helps parents understand that sexuality education is about more than anatomy and reproduction. It is about providing a foundation for the future. And it doesn't only happen once with "the talk." It is a lifelong process (Haffner, 1999).

Personal Values

The next activity, What are your personal values? (Appendix E), allows parents the opportunity to clarify their personal values on their child's sexuality and to promote discussion. Parents are first asked how they respond to their infant touching their own genitals in the bath or during diaper changes. None of the participants reported slapping the child's hand or pushing it away forcefully.

Although one participant reported that during bath time her 23 month old boy had recently grabbed the shower head as the water was coming out of it and pointed it directly at his penis which then became erect. She responded by grabbing the shower head away from him. He did it a second time and she grabbed it away again. She reported that she hadn't given much thought as to why she did that, but that it was just a reaction. By the end of the discussion this participant reported that next time she would not grab the shower head away, but instead let him play with it for a while.

Most participants report practical reasons rather than emotional ones for stopping genital play. For example, during diaper changes if there is feces present, they don't want their child's hands to get soiled. Also for those who have infants who have begun toddling, several participants reported that their child wanted time without their diaper, but that they didn't want to have to worry about their child urinating on the floor or on the bed. Suggestions such as allowing diaper free time during the day in the privacy of their backyard (if they have one) are offered.

One parent also reported that their reason for stopping genital play during diaper changes was simply...

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