Do babies feel sexual pleasure

Sexual development

written by Dr. Ludger Kotthoff

Body contact and tenderness play a major role in the child's emotional development. On the one hand they prepare a good identity finding and on the other hand they are elements of a pleasurable, sexual development. Even in toddlers one can find sexual expressions as can be found in adults. They range from sexual curiosity to arousal and pleasure to orgasm. Childhood sexuality is a pre-form of later adult sexuality, which is referred to as genitality.

The first contact of the newborn with the mother and the “world” takes place through physical contact and being touched. The own body is explored through the skin, motor skills and senses. For a child's sexual development, caressing, touching and skin contact are essential. They prepare the creation of an appropriate body image and bring about possession of one's own body and its functions. Pleasurable body experiences are also the emotional basis for whether one can turn to the world and others with confidence and feel safe or not. Stroking creates a feeling of well-being and strengthens the child's confidence that his needs will be perceived and satisfied. Feelings of belonging, being loved and accepted can develop.

Body contact does satisfy a natural basic need, but how it is dealt with, what is allowed or not allowed or even taboo, depends on cultural, religious and family ideas and rules. Above all, body contact is prevented if it is considered sexualized. Ritualized forms such as hugging and kissing on the cheek are mostly tolerated. Touching oneself, especially on the sexual organs, is often punished and prevented. In their development, children therefore have very different experiences in accepting or rejecting body contact. The self-controlled allowance or rejection of touch creates security and trust in dealing with yourself and others. It can be lustful, lively, exciting and exciting and prepares a positive sexual development.

In addition to touching your own body and being touched by others, tenderness is an important element in sexual development. Tenderness is an expression of affection, care and security both in the child and in the adult. Alfred Adler, one of the fathers of depth psychology, already spoke in 1908 of the "child's need for tenderness". He says: "Appropriate satisfaction in childhood (contributes) significantly to whether a person can later give tenderness himself" (1908/1973, p.127). Children want and need tenderness. The tender lovemaking in youth and adult sexuality is prepared through tenderness in the parent-child relationship. When parents stroke, tickle, hug, kiss or kiss their children, they are telling them that they are accepted for who they are, with all their qualities and abilities. You can be assured of the loving affection of your parents.

A lack of tenderness or misunderstood tenderness that disregards the child's limits and rights has detrimental effects. When dealing with children on a daily basis, there are times when children want and need attention and closeness, and there are times when touch and body contact are uncomfortable or inappropriate. For example, if the child is in a game situation or curiously explores a situation or if other feelings of wanting to be alone and calm are in the foreground, kissing, pressing and kissing are out of place. Tenderness takes into account the wishes and needs of the other. Only when the caregiver sensitively perceives the child's needs for closeness and tenderness, or for autonomy and solitude, and reacts appropriately, does the child feel respected in his or her individuality. They develop the feeling of being able to set themselves apart and say no if the touch does not correspond to the child's needs.

Sexual abuse usually begins through tenderness, intimacy and pretended interest in the child. The perpetrators turn to the children with empathy and understanding, and it is difficult for the children or adolescents to recognize the real intent of the abuser. They fail to distance themselves or to get help and support. In their central desire for tenderness and love, children adapt to the wishes and needs of the perpetrator. They try to do something for harmony or a good atmosphere, take on roles that do not correspond to their role and thus accept needs that are not theirs. Fear, confusion, shame and feelings of guilt are the consequences with which they are left alone by the perpetrator and which they usually cannot cope with.

4 Sexual Development in Childhood and Adolescence

At the beginning of development is the child's joy in discovering and exploring the environment. Babies not only experience sucking on the mother's breast as pleasurable, but also exploring objects with their mouths. With pleasure it discovers how things are, how they feel, and that the baby can already "make a difference". The psychoanalytic idea that sexual pleasure is the core of human motivation is expanded or supplemented in modern research on young children by the term “effectiveness”. Dornes (2006) understands it to be "the desire to function, the pleasure, the joy or ... the excitement over the discovery of a connection and the evocation of an event of which one is the author" (p.222). Your own body with its sexual organs and its functions also becomes the object of lustful, curious, satisfying exploration. Only in the course of further development and depending on cultural norms are the limits of physicality, sensuality and sexuality learned and defined.

According to Volbert (1998), one can differentiate between auto-erotic and socio-sexual behaviors in sexual development. The first form is more likely to be observed in toddlers. The focus here is on exploring your own body and genital organs. In the socio-sexual acts that are more likely to be found in preschool and elementary school children, curiosity is directed towards others, i.e. towards the body and genital organs of siblings, parents, friends or playmates.

4.1 Infants and young children

Almost all parents have observed that their infants and toddlers examine their genitals and manipulate them through play. In the first year of life, they are often not yet able to take targeted actions or stimulate due to a lack of coordination skills. In the second and third year of life, however, the playful manipulation increases, more in boys than in girls. Children aged 3 to 5 years often show genital contact with themselves and others, and in surveys around 50% of parents and educators report that they have observed masturbatory acts in boys and girls and erections in boys. Playful manipulation of the genitals, desire to function and arousal are therefore quite normal and age-appropriate. So if a child masturbates, it is not an indication of an undesirable development. More important than whether a child is masturbating is how often and in what places and in what situations a child masturbates. It can be an indication of a problem situation.

In addition to the auto-erotic manipulations, there are also socio-sexual acts in 3 to 5-year-old children. It is mainly about the interest in the sexual organs of other children as well as showing and displaying one's own genitals. The children identify with their gender role and are proud of their sex organs. The boys like to show their penis and demonstrate how far or how high they can urinate with it. In so-called “doctor games”, boys and girls touch and examine each other's sexual organs. In surveys, frequencies of around 40 to 60% of children are given who are involved in socio-sexual acts or games. Other sexual acts such as imitating sexual intercourse or inserting objects into the vagina, however, have been observed very rarely and are therefore not part of the child's normal interest in sexual activity.

In the course of primary school, many children release their first sex hormones. These prepare puberty for sexual maturity and interest in the opposite sex. At this age, knowledge about the human body and its sexual organs increases. At the same time, the social taboos about sexuality play a special role. Sexuality is therefore experienced as ambivalent and confusing, so that sexual behavior is carried out less openly, as in preschool, but rather hidden in secret with a feeling of shame. Age-specific are also obscene idioms, ambiguous jokes, provocative remarks that are intended to unsettle and challenge adults. The purpose of these hidden-aggressive behaviors is to get closer to sexuality, to try out how sexuality works in everyday life and how parents and other adults deal with sexuality.

Sexual behavior and experience can therefore be observed in all phases of childhood. However, there is a wide range within an age group, so that sexual behavior is not to be expected in every child.

The onset of puberty is accompanied by radical physical and psychological changes. The young people are looking for a new identity and develop a new self built on experiment, risk and provocation. The physical and psychological changes are triggered by the release of the sex hormones testosterone in boys and estradiol in girls. They cause increased growth and pubic hair in boys and girls; also menarche and breast development in girls, penis growth, voice breakage and the formation of sperm cells in boys. Recent research shows that a restructuring of the brain takes place parallel to the development of sexual characteristics. The control function of the frontal lobe takes on new tasks that have to do with looking for risks, trying things out, reorienting and looking for identity. Partnership, love and sexuality are central issues of this age. The proportion of sexually active adolescents increases with age and the overwhelming majority experience their first sexual intercourse within the framework of permanent partnerships, even if these are only of short duration. New studies (BZgA, 2010) show that around the age of 17 half of adolescents have had sexual intercourse. In risk groups, however, sexual intercourse can occur much earlier. Early sexual relationships are particularly common in youth with low school education or youth with family experiences of neglect or divorce. They are also unreliable in contraception, which means that unwanted teenage pregnancies are much more common. Good education, information, and sex education can all lead to good sexual development.

4.5 Summary and overview

Up to 2 years:

  • Genital manipulation
  • Erection in boys
  • Experience of pleasant genital feelings
  • Enjoying nudity

3 to 5 years:

  • Masturbating with pleasure, sometimes to orgasm
  • Sex games with peers and siblings: showing one's genitals; Exploration of one's own genitals or that of other children
  • Enjoying nudity; Undressing in the presence of others

6 to 12 years:

  • Sexual games with peers and siblings; Role play and sexual fantasies; Kissing, mutual masturbation, simulated intercourse
  • Shame and embarrassment; sexual games are kept secret from adults; Falling in love and lovesickness
  • Interest in sexuality in media;
  • Onset of pubertal changes: menarche and breast development in girls; Ejaculation in boys

13 years and older:

  • Continuation of the physical change
  • Kissing, petting, mutual masturbation
  • Sexual fantasies and dreams
  • Sexual intercourse

5 Sexual behavior of abused children

Clinical studies show that sexually abused children have a higher frequency than other conspicuous children in almost all of the symptoms examined (e.g. aggressive behavior, social withdrawal, depression, anxiety, learning disorders, attention deficits). It mainly depends on the age of the child and the severity and duration of the experience of sexualised violence. In addition to the above-mentioned abnormalities, premature or inappropriate sexual behavior such as excessive interest in the genitals of the parents or siblings, sexualized play with dolls, the insertion of objects into the vagina or anus, excessive or public masturbation, seductive behavior, the invitation to sexual stimulation, forcing sexual behavior through violence, or shy, withdrawn behavior. Sexualized behavior is an important indicator of sexualized violence (Volbert, 1998). However, there is no fixed, causal connection between conspicuous sexual behavior and sexualised violence. Sometimes sexually abused children show completely inconspicuous behavior at the time they experience sexual violence, so that a diagnosis is difficult. Each individual case must therefore be carefully examined to determine what the cause of the observed behavior is.

Adler, A., The Child's Tenderness Need (1908). In Adler, A., Furtmüller. Healing and Education. Frankfurt 1973

Federal Center for Health Education: Youth Sexuality.
Representative repeat survey of 14 to 17 year olds and their parents. Cologne 2010

Dornes, M., The Child's Soul. Origin and development. Frankfurt 2006

Kotthoff, L., Sexuality and Tenderness in Child Development. In: Schoden, P., (Ed.) Sexual violence against children. Information and prevention. Berlin 2010

Volbert, R., Children's Sexual Behavior: Normal Development or Indicator of Sexual Abuse? In: Amann, G., Wippinger, R., (Ed.) Sexual abuse. Tubingen 1998

  • Dr. Ludger Kotthoff

    Dr. Ludger Kotthoff is Academic Senior Counselor at the Department of Psychology at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster and a long-standing member of the scientific advisory board of the Child Protection Portal project.

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Sex education project for children and adolescents

Value-oriented sex education prevention project that accompanies girls, boys and their parents through puberty. To the website

Work and orientation aid on the subject of "Adolescent sexuality and sexual assault among adolescents" to hand out

Book tip - children's book for education

Rübel, Doris (2001): Why, Why, Why. Where the little children come from. Ravensburger book publisher. Age recommendation of the publisher: From 4 years.

Book tip - children's book for education

Kreul, Holde; Geisler, Dagmar (2003): My first educational book: Enlightenment for children. Loewe publishing house. Age recommendation of the publisher: From 5 years.

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