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Yes. This can happen at any age, but it can start as early as 4 to 6 months, after babies gain control of their limbs and hands and start exploring their bodies. They'll grab at their ears, feet, and genitals — and for baby boys, the penis is an interesting and easy-to-reach body part to go for.
"It's a curious shape and location for inquisitive babies," says Bob Sears, a pediatrician in San Clemente, California, and the author of many books, including The Vaccine Book. (He's also the son of William Sears, the pediatrician and attachment parenting guru.)
Your baby's exploration may be occasional or quite frequent. Both are normal.
It's also normal for your baby to experience "pleasant sensations," as Sears puts it. You may notice signs of this, like facial flushing and further touching.
On the other hand, a few rubs may satisfy your baby's curiosity, and he may stop in infancy and then later pick back up where he left off. It's very unlikely that your child is rubbing or tugging at his genitals because of a medical problem. Occasionally, however, this behavior may signal some kind of skin irritation or infection or another medical issue.
It's usually easy to tell whether your child is exploring in a pleasurable way or reacting to itching and discomfort, so talk to his doctor if you think the latter is the case. You can also check your baby's penis and scrotum for any skin lesions, redness, swelling, or signs of irritation.
If you are witnessing your child's first stab at masturbation, how should you handle it? Calmly — even if it makes you uncomfortable.
"Telling a child that [genital touching is] dirty, bad, or wrong teaches them that their body and their eventual sexuality are also dirty and bad," says Sears.
Let your baby explore without making any comments. If other people are uncomfortable with your child's attention to his genitals, putting a diaper and pants on him and giving him a toy to play with will usually direct his attention elsewhere.
When your child is old enough to understand, tell him that touching and exploring his genitals is fine, but it's a private activity. If he'd like to keep it up, ask him to head to the bathroom or bedroom. If it occurs in public, ask your child to wait until he's at home in private.
Don't worry if your child needs to be reminded about this. Again, that's normal.
Most kids give up exploring in public around school age, when it dawns on them that they don't see other kids rooting around in their trousers. Consult your child's doctor if the private-parts prodding continues in public after age 5 or 6 or if your child seems unusually intent on the activity. Otherwise, stick with the "fine but private" message and try to keep your cool.
Find out more about masturbation in 12- to 24-month-olds and 2-year-olds, and read responses to a mom who's embarrassed by her toddler's masturbation habits.