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Talking to Kids About Their Bodies

Honest Talk About Bodies

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Our three-year-old used a word that sounded like “vagina” as she wiped herself after using the toilet. I’m going to ask her preschool teacher if this is something she learned about at school. When should we talk to our kids about their bodies?

What is a good age to use proper names of body parts and their functions?

Not Ready

Dear N.R.,

It’s never too early. But anatomy lessons need to be age appropriate and accurate. And delivered with an attitude of approachability from a trusted adult.

The Bathroom

Preschoolers are interested in elimination and the exterior parts of the body that perform this function. If their school has open stalls – which helps teachers help those who need help – it’s quite possible for boys and girls to become aware that bodies differ.

There are many euphemisms for parts and processes. Even the room itself is known variously as “bathroom” (though there’s no tub at school), the “restroom” (again, no cots nor cribs here), the “powder room” (well, maybe, if there’s a diaper table), and “lavatory” (getting close – this refers to the sink in the U.S. but it’s a “toilet” in the U.K.).

Historically, before indoor plumbing, a tot was taught to use an old kitchen pot for convenience, often in the kitchen, rather than using the outhouse as the big people did. This is where the word “potty” comes from.

Please use the correct words, just as you would for any room in the house and for other self-care processes. “Use the toilet” is a good standard phrase that will be understood in a variety of places your child will find herself in when she has this need.

Here’s a quick reference https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/anatomy-of-the-urinary-system for words to use about the body’s process of eliminating waste. Urine builds up in the bladder. When the bladder is full, the brain gets the signal that it’s time to use the toilet. The urethra is a tube-shaped organ coming from the bladder through which the urine passes to exit the body. A boy urinates from his penis. A girl urinates from her urinary opening.

Solid waste takes a much longer route. From the stomach, the mashed mush of food proceeds through about twelve feet of intestines (22 feet for an adult!) to wait in the rectum until it builds up and the brain gets the signal that it’s time to go. Then the sphincter muscles relax at the anus to release the feces. The word “poop” is acceptable through elementary school and in pediatric offices, but at some point a person older than this may need to discuss the process in more mature terms. “Bowel movement” sounds more dignified in a doctor’s office, so try to drop this term into your conversations now and then.


As for actual bath time, teach a girl to clean her vulva – that’s the external surface of the area between her legs that includes the labia (folds of skin along the sides), the clitoris (sensitive area toward the front), and vaginal opening. The urinary opening is between the clitoris and the vagina. Girls should be taught to wipe the anus – when toileting and bathing – away from the front to prevent fecal matter from causing an infection in the other openings.

A boy can be taught to clean his penis from the glans (head) to the scrotum (the sac that contains the testicles a.k.a. testes). A little extra care is needed for an uncircumcised penis which can get a yeast infection or fungal infection under the foreskin.

Human Reproduction

Is someone expecting a baby? This blessed event is usually what prompts a child’s interest in knowing where babies come from.

With fertility assistance, open adoptions, and a Cesarean section rate of about 1 out of 3 births across the country, choose your words carefully when describing fertilization, pregnancy, and birth.

Let’s say there’s an obviously pregnant woman in your child’s social circle. This is an opportune time to use the word “uterus” to name the location in which the baby is growing. (Not her stomach!) There’s no need to worry a child about the possibility of surgery before a C-section has occurred, but if she needs to understand why Aunty greets her from her bed instead of at her front door, a three-year-old only needs to be told that her body needs a lot of rest from giving birth.

The majority of babies arrive via the “birth canal” a.k.a. vagina when they are ready. “Vagina” is a good word for little girls to know because this could be the site of a yeast infection https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/yeast-infection.html or other discomfort well before her childbearing years. She needs a word to talk about the itchiness.

To date, an egg from a female’s ovaries and a sperm from a male’s testicles are necessary for a baby to begin. In vitro, frozen embryo, surrogate, donor, and adoption are words that may be pertinent for a particular baby’s arrival story. Choose the simplest way to tell the story now, and add to it as your child grows. 


Please begin conversations about menstruation https://www.choc.org/health-topics/menstruation/#:~:text=You%20can%20say%2C%20%E2%80%9CMost%20women,their%20bodies%20before%20reaching%20puberty. at least a few years before a girl needs to understand the changes happening to her at puberty. The age of menarche (first menstrual period) is considered normal from age 10 to 16 years.

Romance, Relationships, and Privacy

What are your family’s beliefs and practices around these topics?  A three-year-old typically wants assurances that she is the product and recipient of lots of love. She does not need details about intimate interactions between adults at this age.

A picture book What Makes a Baby? by Cory Silverberg (2013) leaves room for variations in the way a baby arrives in a family, with the common element of babies’ need for love. Add some details pertinent to your child’s family (for example, does marriage fit in here?) and then more details as she seems to need them over the next few years.

Consent and privacy are also subject to norms set by a child’s parent(s). Think about what you want to model as far as adult sexual relationships for her future. Trust, care, support, respect, and forgiveness are some of the values you demonstrate in your relationship with your child as well.

Start the conversation about bodies now to keep the way open for honest talk in the years to come.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist www.drdebbiewood.com and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum www.theccm.org. She will be presenting Zoom workshops for parents on Mondays 7-9 pm, March 13: “I Had it First!” Teaching Conflict Resolution https://www.theccm.org/event-details/i-had-it-first-conflict-resolution ; March 27: Ages and Stages 0-5-years https://www.theccm.org/event-details/ages-and-stages-0-5-years.

The museum is open with online reservations https://www.theccm.org/event-details/plan-your-visit-today-2 or call: 410-990-1993.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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