How to teach kids about healthy private parts

Kinderling News & Features

Talking about private parts is something parents and kids alike can shy away from. However, for health and development reasons, it's vital they can discuss it with you and say if something's wrong.

We asked Dr Elysia Thornton-Benko, General Practitioner at Bondi Road Doctors, to answer the tricky yet important questions parents frequently ask when it comes to their kids' bottom line.

What are the best words for these body parts?

It's always best to use the correct words. For example, with girls, the vulva is actually the external area. Many people call it the vagina, but that's actually the opening and internal area. 

"If a child is young and comes up with a nickname for those areas, in my opinion, you don’t have to go over the top to correct them," she says. "Let it go a little bit, but before they get to school, they should know the right terminology. And if they ask you directly, be completely honest with them. The last thing you want is other children teaching your kids anatomy!" 

Listen to Elysia on Kinderling Conversation:

What should I do if my child constantly has their hand in their pants?

“It is normal, they’re exploring, it’s a part of their body,” Elysia says. “When they get to the age group when they can touch it or see it, they want to have a look.” 

However, if it becomes habitual, jump in early and consider seeing a doctor to consult on the behaviour or check if something is wrong. “Trust your instincts with this one,” Elysia recommends. “When it becomes obsessive, when it happens when they should be doing something else and it isn’t just a short-lived moment,  trust your instincts.”

“If something just doesn’t feel quite right, then discuss it with your partner. Then, potentially go see your trusted GP as well.” 

What if a child complains downstairs is sore? 

Every child could get nappy rash, even if you’re changing nappies regularly. If there’s a mild redness, not too much of a bad smell, and they otherwise appear to be well, Elysia says it’s fair to assume it’s just a bit of nappy rash. Change nappies regularly, ensure the skin thoroughly dries after baths and liberally apply over-the-counter ointment on the area. 

“Put some good barrier cream on it,” Elysia says. “Air it out a little bit and see what happens. However, if it then gets worse – more red or skin starts breaking down – then that’s probably the time to go and get some expert advice.” 

Redness and irritation of the testicles, penis, vagina and vulva can occur. If it’s mild, you can tend to it at home in most cases. But if it’s more severe, have it seen to. 

For complaints of a persistently itchy bottom, with no eczema or rash with irritation, consider worms (read our handy guide). 

What if they complain of pain while urinating?

If a child is saying it hurts to wee every single time, Elysia advises going to visit the doctor.

There are a few things to note in this situation. Do they have a fever? How are they behaving? Are they drinking enough water? Does the urine smell?

It’s also important to have a little look down there too (explaining that while it is a private area, it’s necessary to check if they’re okay). If it’s not overly red and you’re not too concerned, they’ve only complained once or twice and there’s no fever, probably just monitor it. But if it’s more ongoing, go in for medical review, as you want to check for something like a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI). Girls are certainly at risk for this. If there is any discharge from a male or female child, see a doctor.

How can we teach kids to keep their genitals clean? 

Any urine on boys’ undies isn’t great for the tip of their penis, and can cause redness and irritation, Elysia warns. A quick gentle wipe of the penis  with toilet paper after urinating can make a difference with this, yet obviously it's not always possible. 

Another area to keep an eye on is the foreskin of a boy’s penis (if they’re not circumcised). “Everyone’s born a little bit differently and some are a bit more retractable than others. The key message is do not forcibly retract or pull back that foreskin,” Elysia says. 

Sometimes a small amount of white stuff (called smegma) can build up underneath, but that’s not dirty, so best to leave it. Never clean the area with much force or rubbing. 

“Serious situations can occur if you forcibly retract it and then really vigorously clean it - there can be scar tissue,” Elysia says. “Over time it can actually cause a contraction, and there are things called phimosis and paraphimosis, which can actually be very painful and definitely require a doctor or hospital visit.” 

For girls, avoid any cleaning products internally and ensure the area is fully dry after a bath. 

Children usually naturally progress to cleaning and looking after themselves when they start to mimic what their caregiver has been doing. As for drying, it's best that parents oversee this until they are at least in primary school, to ensure there is not significant amounts of residual moisture in sensitive areas which can cause issues. 

Do we need special bath products for those areas?

“Keep it simple,” Elysia says. Some children are fine with any product, but opt for hypoallergenic where possible. 

“In younger, baby skin, you could do an oily bath. Baby skin doesn’t need to have a bath every day, but a couple times a week a good oily bath,” Elysia says. “That’s actually very good with moisturising. If there is irritation, it’s best not to use any product. You can actually use sorbelene as a bit of a soap, and it also adds some moisture.”

For dairy allergies, you need to keep away from milky products in the bath. 

What if my boy complains of sore testicles? 

Take this very seriously. There are some rare cases where the testicle can twist or taut, so you need to get to the nearest emergency department. If one is increased in size or tender, or if the penis is swollen, that needs to be tended to too.

What should happen if you have to visit a GP?

When a medical examination of the area is necessary, Elysia believes the GP should explain this isn't something we would normally do, but they need to check everything is okay. Ensure the parent or caregiver is involved in the process - it's best they take down underwear and communicate to the child so they know this isn’t an everyday thing. Doctors should keep the examination as brief and as 'hands free' as possible, of course.