Inside: A guide to help parents to talk to kids about child erections without shaming them or worrying about what's normal (or not). You'll find information relevant for children of all ages.
A common request that I receive from parents is about how to explain child erections.
Their child may have started asking questions about why their penis grows bigger or harder. Or an older child may ask about why their brother's penis sometimes sticks out.
As a parent, child erections can be a challenge as we often associate erections with sex.
So it is perfectly understandable if answering child erection questions can make you feel uncomfortable.
As adults, we see an erection as a part of sex, and seeing your child's erect penis or answering their questions about them, can feel awkward. Plus we often worry about whether we are giving them too much information, as many of us worry about whether our child is actually ready to hear about sex.
So how do you talk to a child about erections, in an age-appropriate way?
You’ll find more information about sex education in my Sex Education 101 page.
So when do boys start getting erections? Or boners (as they are commonly called).
Little boy erections start from the very beginning. Child erections are just one of those things that happens and shows that your child’s penis is working properly.
By ‘working properly’, I mean that their penis is capable of becoming erect so that when they are grown up, they can use it for the penetration part of sexual intercourse. Your child’s penis has been in ‘working order’ from the very beginning as a newborn. Some say that this was even happening when they were in utero, as a fetus inside your pregnant uterus.
So it is completely natural and healthy for your child to have erections throughout the day and night. And all it means is that their penis is working properly.
Now, don't be surprised if you don't notice your child's erections until they are a toddler. I receive quite a few questions from parents about toddler erections. So you can relax, as there is no sexual meaning whatsoever behind your toddler's erection.
Erections are all about an increased blood flow to the penis.
The brain sends a chemical message to the blood vessels in the penis. The arteries relax and open to let more blood in. At the same time, the veins close, trapping the blood inside the penis. There is a lot of spongy tissue inside the penis.
When it is filled with blood, that soft spongy tissue will go firm or hard, making the penis expand, because of all the extra blood inside it. The penis will become larger, firmer, and stand out from the body. It is now erect.
When the erection is over, the veins will relax, letting the extra blood back into the body. At the same time, the arteries will close, only letting a small amount of blood into the penis.
The penis then becomes soft again.
And that is how a boys erection happens, regardless of whether they are a baby, toddler, child, tween or teen!
Child erections usually happen for no particular reason at all.
We call these a spontaneous or involuntary erection ie when the penis becomes erect for no particular reason. Sometimes it can happen when they are overexcited during play or other intense occasions eg birthday parties. It can also happen when they have a full bladder and need to go to the toilet.
As your child gets older and goes through puberty, voluntary erections begin to happen ie. they begin to happen more frequently because of sexual thoughts and feelings.
Puberty is that time when the body starts to change into an adult body that is capable of reproducing. Which means that as well as being fertile and having an adult body, the brain also changes. Which means that for the first time, your child will start to have sexual thoughts and feelings, resulting in an erection.
They’ll still have spontaneous or involuntary erections that happen for no particular reason, but these will now start occurring more frequently, often in the wrong place or time. And eventually, as they progress through puberty, spontaneous erections become less common.
And as they go through puberty, kids will notice morning erections, ie. erections that happen on waking up in the morning. This is often referred to as morning wood, and can happen for a range of different reasons. So if you're unsure about how to explain morning wood to your child, just explain that it happens to lots of boys and it means that their penis is working properly.
Usually, there isn’t anything to worry about. Child erections are usually completely natural and healthy.
There's a couple of situations though, when erections can be problematic.
If your child’s erection lasts for more than a few hours or if you notice other unusual symptoms like rash, fever or discoloured skin, then you should seek advice from a health professional. Priapism, a painful erection that lasts 4 hours or longer, is rare in children but requires urgent treatment.
Phimosis is when the foreskin does not retract past the glans (head) of the penis ie the foreskin is tight. And in case you are wondering when the foreskin does retract, the proportion of boys in which full retraction is possible is: 10% at 1 year, 50% at 10 years and 99% at 17 years.
You can read more about how to look after your child’s penis and foreskin from The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne’s Fact Sheet on penis and foreskin care.
If you are ever unsure, I am a firm believer in trusting your ‘gut instinct’. If your ‘gut instinct’ tells you there is something wrong, then seek advice from a health professional.
So how do you go about explaining erections to your child? There are a number of things you could say.
For baby and toddler erections, you can just ignore it or acknowedge the erection. You could just comment that their penis is poking out/getting harder/growing bigger, name it as an erection and reassure them that all penises do that. Try to respond in the same matter-of-fact way that you would use if talking to them about their toenails!
As your child grows older, there's a number of different conversations you could have.
Let your child know that boy's erections are normal and they happen to all boys (or kids with penises).
Make sure that your child knows that the part they are referring to is called a penis, and that when it grows hard (or bigger or however you want to describe it), that is called an erection. You can read more in this article, about how to start naming the private parts of their body.
An erection happens when extra blood goes into the penis. It means that their penis is working properly. You could also explain that their penis is practicing for when they are older and are ready to have sex.
As your child approaches puberty, you should let your child know that they will start to have more erections than usual and that they can happen at the wrong time and in the wrong place. This is also a good time to start talking about wet dreams, ejaculation and sexual feelings. If you’re unsure about how to start talking with your son about these things, then my parent book, Boy Puberty: How to talk about Puberty and Sex with your tween son.
A lot of parents are unsure about how to care for the foreskin, especially if dad is circumcised. The foreskin doen't require any special care and should never be forcible pulled back (retracted) by a parent.
You can read more about foreskin care here:
My mission is to create resources that will help you to naturally talk to your kids about sex, all while respecting your personal values.
Which means that inside this website, you'll find lots of resources to help you with talking to your child about bodies.
My Sex Education 101 page includes all of the information on sex education. You'll find lots of different blogposts to help with getting started, and a big section that focuses on bodies.
You'll find videos about sex ed in my Sex Education Videos resource page that you can watch with your child or to learn more about sex education yourself.
You’ll also find an extensive range of sex education books for children, for kids of all ages. There's even some books in there for parents! And a list of childrens books about bodies and childrens books about private parts.
If you're looking for some ideas on how to talk to your child about bodies, How to Talk to Kids About Bodies, will help you to start naming the private body parts and to have shame-free conversations with them about bodies. It is filled with lots of different ideas on how to have natural conversations with your child about their body.
You'll also find some child friendly anatomically-correct cartoon illustrations of the genitals and internal reproductive organs that are appropriate for children from the age of 3 and up. Let's Look at Different Body Parts is a printable that will help take the awkward out of talking to your child about their body, so they grow up feeling educated, confident, and comfortable in their own skin.
If you're worried that talking to your child about bodies might lead to questions about sex, then you can relax. How to Talk to Kids About Sex, will help you to explain sexual intercourse to your child in a way they will understand. It breaks sex down into simple steps that take the stress out of explaining!
If you want a printed book to hold in your hands, then the The Sex Education Answer Book will give you age-specific answers to the most common questions kid's ask parents about sex. Which means you don't need to worry about finding a child-friendly explanation that your child understands.
If you want the answers to questions about a lot more than just sex, then Sex Ed Quickies is your best option. It has answers to 300+ questions that kids commonly ask parents, including how babies are made, sexual intercourse, body parts, puberty, relationships, pregnancy, birth, masturbation, sexual diversity, gender, pornography, STIs, contraception and much more.
I'm Cath, a sex educator living in Australia with my husband and 2 kids. I help parents to talk about sex (with less cringe and more confidence) and empower their child to make smart sexual decisions. To find a better way to talk about sex, you can join my community of parents and visit my shop for helpful resources.