One morning, while looking at his baby photos, my 4-year-old asked, “Mommy, why was I so little?”
“You were just a baby,” I said. “You used to be so little that you fit inside my stomach!”
His eyes widened. “But how was I born?”
Uh-oh. I had just inadvertently wandered into uncharted territory. “Well, when you were big enough, a doctor helped you to be born.”
“But Mommy,” he persisted, “how did I get out of your body?”
I was conflicted. Was my son old enough to really understand the physics of birth? Would the truth terrify him? Worse, would it open the floodgates to more questions I didn’t know how to answer?
“The baby/sex question is the most common one that stumps parents,” says Roseanne Lesack, Ph.D, director of a child psychology clinic at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. “There really aren’t any other questions that fluster parents as much as this one or that make them feel so incompetent.”
Why is the baby/sex question so hard? It’s a common dilemma: You think you’re supposed to tell your child the truth rather than make up something that will have to be corrected later, but sometimes that particular truth is… complicated. The good news is that your answer doesn’t have to be.
When my son asked about his birth, I panicked. I wanted to change the subject or mumble something while running away to hide in another room. But in a moment of rare genius, I said, “Well, what do YOU think?”
He was silent for a minute. Then he said, “I think I came out of your stomach.”
“Okay,” I answered. “Some babies do come out of their mommy’s stomach.”
I waited for him to ask a follow-up question, but he didn’t. He hopped down from the couch and asked for some crackers instead, clearly satisfied with my answer.
“From a developmental perspective, this situation is all about figuring out what your child is ready to learn,” says Lesack. “That’s why asking ‘What do you think?’ works so well.”
Just because a child asks how babies are born doesn’t mean they want all the facts.
Sometimes kids who ask the baby/sex question are looking for a factual answer, or one that gives them new information (this is more common in early elementary-aged kids). But younger children are often simply looking for some reassurance that the world works the way they think it does. Answering their question with a question encourages your child to think about their own worldview and allows you to better understand what that worldview is.
What if your child’s worldview is factually wrong, like if he thinks babies come out of a mommy’s mouth? That’s okay: You’ve bought yourself some time, and now you can evaluate what kind of answer is developmentally appropriate for your child. In this situation, Lesack recommends thinking about what kind of “narrative” you want for your child — all families will have a different opinion.
“Some families are okay with the fantasy of the stork, while others aren’t,” says Lesack. “It’s the same as Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. If you’re not okay with it, then this is a great time to say, ‘Well, actually, babies come out of the vagina… isn’t that funny?’ And then talk to your child about how cool the human body is [and] how it was created to do all these interesting things.”
Ultimately, this approach will work best when you use it to help you judge your child’s developmental readiness around the topics of biology and sexuality.
“Just because a child asks how babies are born doesn’t mean they want all the facts and a long, stretched out conversation,” says Lesack. “Older kids might be ready for that, but sometimes parents of younger kids carry on for longer than a child is interested. Instead, answer as simply as possible for the question being asked.”
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in April 2018, and updated in May 2019.