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What Do I Do About My Toddler Reaching in his Diaper to Play with his Penis?

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Question: What Do I Do About My Toddler Reaching in his Diaper to Play with his Penis?
A reader writes:
"My toddler has a relatively new habit of sticking his hand in his diaper and often playing with his penis. I don't want to tell him not to touch but I do wish he'd do it less. One forum I read suggested it's a sign of autism, but I'm not sure how or why. Is this normal? And should I just ignore it?"
Answer: First, rule out any medical issues like a dermatological condition, fungal infection or other illness. Look for obvious outward symptoms such as pain, problems urinating, flaky skin in the area, redness, swelling, bleeding or skin discoloration that wasn't there before. If any of those symptoms are present then see your health care provider immediately. This alone could resolve the issue.

Barring any medical problems, however, I would say that this is completely normal behavior not to worry about. There could still be some underlying issues, though. Since you are sending me this in the summer, I'm wondering if you have noticed it since the weather started heating up? Some contributing factors could include:

  • Irritation due to hot weather / sweating.
  • Getting used to waistbands. Sometimes when you switch from loose onesie / jumper type clothing or more big boy type clothes, the waist bands are tighter or are located slightly lower than the baby items.
  • More awareness of erections (which happen all the time, especially when there's an impending bowel movement).

Many times, touching, scratching or tugging in that area is just a normal activity for boys. They have to rearrange for comfort or relieve an itch. In the course of doing this, toddlers may take a moment and realize that, "Hey, that kinda feels good." They don't have that filter in place that tells them it's not appropriate to touch your penis any time the urge strikes. As a toddler or 2-year-old, he's also a little too young to start reinforcing that just yet. If he's doing it all the time and when in public and you find this bothersome, then I would do some or all of the following:

  • Consider starting potty training if your child is ready or if you have a day to let him run around naked give that a go and see if he plays with his penis less. If that's the case, then you know it's the diapers or clothing that are causing the problem.
  • Dress him in slightly longer shirts.
  • Make sure his waistbands are looser for comfort. And don't worry about buying clothes that are a little loose -- he will grow into them and potty training will renew a loose fit when bulky diapers are gone.
  • Find the right diaper tightness. Diapers that are too tight are irritating but diapers that are too loose can be just as bad since that allows for constant friction in an active toddler. (Think about it like adjusting the laces or strap on a pair of shoes so you don't get blisters.)
  • Change his diaper more frequently so that he's not sticking to his diapers.
  • If you notice he is sticking (like when you go to change his diaper his penis and scrotum are basically glued together) I've found some great stuff called Monistat Chafing Relief Powder-Gel. It just takes a few drops and I love it because there is no fragrance and it's not like the ultra-thick, white diaper creams that get all over everything. Apply some of that at each diaper change and especially before going out in the heat.

Even if it's driving you crazy, I still wouldn't call too much attention to it now. Just use redirection. Give him something else to do with his hands (like a toy or book) or ask him to do something with his hands (Say things like, "How tall are you?" "Show me how big a kitty cat is," "Point to the stop sign," or "Give me high five.")

If he's still doing it a lot when he's out of diapers or if he seems to be developing a habit of it -- like if it becomes a self-soothing activity at nap time -- then you can deal with it like it's a behavior you want to modify and start talking about appropriate times and places for touching that part of your body. Nearly all boys need that talk at some point anyway since they need to learn to make those adjustments without anyone seeing and learn the appropriate time and place for masturbation.

As for what you read on a forum regarding this as a sign of autism, I have never heard this and I was unable to find anything definitive to support that. Here, Lisa Jo Rudy (our Autism Guide at About.com) lists the possible early signs of autism and this is not one of them (even though some parents of children on the spectrum out there may have noticed this behavior.) It's also important to note that a single behavior taken alone when your child is otherwise developing normally should not be mistaken for autism.

Pediatrics Guide Dr. Vincent Iannelli echoes Lisa's possible early autism signs and a toddler playing with his penis was not something that he indicated as a marker for further evaluation for autism. (See also his Autism Screening Quiz.) If your child has not shown any of these signs, then I would not be concerned.

Do you have a question you'd like to see answered? You can send your questions to me at babyparenting@aboutguide.com.

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