Care and Feeding

He’s Got an Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie

… and he can’t stop touching it. Is this normal?

Photo illustration of a woman changing a baby's diaper on top of a pattern of torn paper.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by kati1313/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a new mom to a wonderfully happy and healthy 5-month-old son. My mother, who only had girls, occasionally watches him, and is increasingly disturbed by him grabbing and pulling at his penis during diaper changes and baths. I tell her that this is normal for boys—but is it? Having only sisters and never babysitting baby boys, I’m not 100 percent confident. Which leads me to other questions: At what age is this not appropriate? Do I try to distract him from grabbing his penis? Should I give him more “naked baby time” outside of diaper changes and baths? Anything else I should know?

—Can’t Touch This?

Dear Can’t Touch This,

It’s crazy-making to have a new baby; you worry about everything the baby is doing and everything you’re doing. I hope you have the kind of pediatrician to whom you can take this kind of concern—there really is no such thing as a stupid question, and if you don’t ask, you’ll never learn.

This is all my way of saying I’m not a doctor but—yeah, this is normal. Babies exist in a weird state of shock at their own existence, forever marveling at their own hands or feet or tongues or … you know. I wouldn’t bother distracting him from touching any part of his body, unless you’re trying to hurry along the diaper change or get him to leave his socks on.

Some parents do naked baby time as a way of bonding; some do it just to air out the … smellier zones. There are few things cuter than a little baby lolling around in the nude, but I don’t think you need to devote time to this just so your kid can get in touch with his, um, self. I assure you every child alive finds a way to explore their own genitals. As he ages, you can encourage him to conduct his explorations in the privacy of his own bedroom.

Dear Care and Feeding,

What age should co-sleeping stop? My daughter, who is 9 years old, has always slept in the same bed as my husband and me. She is our only child. I have tried a few times but have never followed through on getting her in her own bed and room. My parents have been telling me it is past time—that she is getting too old to continue to sleep with us. My husband gets upset when they ask if she is in her own room yet. I know they’re asking out of concern for their granddaughter and her getting older.

—When to Let Go

Dear When to Let Go,

Co-sleeping is … a contentious issue. For many households, the family bed can be a way to bond, essentially. It’s not for me—personally, I like sleeping without being kicked in the face every 10 minutes.
But every family is different.

Kids grow up. And you reach a point at which you need to consider whether a family bed still makes sense. Your parents clearly feel you’ve reached that point; your husband doesn’t. You seem ambivalent.

I think 9 is a bit old to be sleeping with Mom and Dad. Your daughter is a big kid now and deserves some independence; she’ll be a bigger kid before you know it and deserves some privacy. Leaving the question of your daughter aside, I’m curious about what this arrangement has meant for your marriage. I think it’s healthiest for everyone involved that you make new sleeping arrangements immediately.

(Parents of newborns may be interested in the American Academy of Pediatrics sleep recommendations to prevent sleep-related infant deaths.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two daughters, one a senior in high school and the other a freshman. Through a design flaw, Senior’s bedroom is twice the size of Freshman’s; Freshman has bemoaned her bedroom most of her life. (First-world problem, but it is a very small room.)

Freshman asked if she can switch when Senior goes off to college next year. I said yes, thinking that it was only fair, especially since Senior won’t be there most of the time. Senior, who has an anxiety disorder and doesn’t deal well with change, found out about this agreement and is upset.

I acknowledge that Senior may not like having the smaller room when she comes back for holidays (she plans to go to a local college, and I’m fairly sure she’ll be back most weekends), but it’s not like we’re turning it into a home gym—she’ll still have a room, albeit a smaller one. I think that’s something she can adjust to. My husband thinks it would be traumatic for Senior to move out and lose her bedroom all at once. Am I being heartless? Would it be better to wait until, say, second semester before making the switch, to give Senior time to ease into college life? Or should I go ahead and fulfill Freshman’s wish of finally having space for a dresser and a desk?

—Grappling With Change

Dear GWC,

You’re not being heartless, and your husband is being indulgent. I’m not unsympathetic to your big kid’s struggles with anxiety, but the solution is not to cheat your other kid out of something that she has a reasonable right to enjoy, too. Your older daughter will have a lot to adjust to in the coming year; sometimes that’s just how life works.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a university student. Once a week, I pick up my cousins, boys aged 6 and 8, from school and take them home. I look after them until one or both of their parents comes home, then help make dinner and eat with them.

I’m paid adequately but not extravagantly. The kids are spunky and fun, and it’s lovely to have a chance to see family (my immediate family lives in another country). The money from babysitting helps so I can save enough to not have a huge student loan. I’ve been doing this since I started university, and my aunt and uncle are very chill and it’s pretty flexible.

However, we never discussed how I should handle the children when they are difficult or misbehave. When they hit or scream at each other, and they’re in my care, I usually make them apologize, but I don’t really know what the parents’ expectations are around discipline.

On a different note, both kids are exceptionally fussy eaters. The amount of coaxing their parents have to do to get them to eat any veggies is exhausting. Often, the parent either gives up or is in tears.

Would it be useful or necessary to have a conversation with them about boundaries, or what they want me to contribute in terms of discipline?

And how could I initiate that conversation without sounding judgmental? There is some family tension; other aunts have made comments about this aunt’s parenting style, and I don’t want to lose the trust she has in me.

—What’s My Duty?

Dear WMD,

You sound like a great cousin and sitter. Your aunt and uncle are lucky to have you!

This is complex: Your employers are also your family, and you are sensitive about other dynamics at play in the family unit.

I think it’s perfectly fine to ask your aunt and uncle whether they’re happy with how you handle conflict. One way to do this is to simply relay a specific incident—“Fred hit Oliver, so I sent him for a time out. I hope that’s OK with you, or is there another way you’d like me to handle situations like that?” That would offer you a springboard to discuss how they’d like you to manage discipline.

The dinnertime scenario is a bit different, because it sounds like there you’re more cousin than sitter. I’d just use that time as an opportunity to set a good example. You can model good eating habits and good manners. (“See, Oliver, this broccoli is so good!”) In my experience, most picky eaters are enacting a struggle for control, one that can be very fraught (hence the parent’s tears). I think your instinct to keep the peace with your family by not getting caught in the middle of it is probably wise. You rely on this job, and you enjoy having time with your family. How the kids behave at dinner isn’t really your concern, however annoying it might be to suffer through.

—Rumaan Alam

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