Can We Just Call it a Vagina Already? Talking to Kids about Body Parts

by | May 6, 2020 | Parenting Young Kids | 40 comments

Letting kids say the real words for body parts

I think it’s vitally important to teach kids to use the proper words for body parts, and particularly genitalia.

It decreases shame; it helps them understand their bodies; it can even help prevent sexual abuse.

We’re working really hard behind the scenes at Bare Marriage right now for our book deadline for The Great Sex Rescue, which is due in at Baker Books next Friday. Because of that, I’m not doing a normal “series” in May like I often do. I just didn’t have the time to organize a bunch of epic posts.

Instead, I’m just writing posts off the cuff about things that I’m thinking (and I’m glad the Tiger King one got so much engagement!).

But let me tell you another story about a news item I’ve been following, and how it made me think of the importance of using the real terms for body parts.

I’ve been following a rather sad and depressing story about Cedarville University, and I will try to make this short.

Anthony Moore was a pastor at The Village Church, when it was discovered that he had secretly filmed at least five videos of a young man he was mentoring while that young man was in the shower. When The Village Church learned of this, they fired him and announced that he had a moral failing and was disqualified from ministry. They did not, however, say publicly what that moral failing was to warn others.

Not long after that, Moore was hired by Thomas White, the president of Cedarville University (a Christian university), where Moore eventually worked as a professor, an advisor on diversity, and as a basketball coach. White knew of Moore’s past, and had sent a letter to the trustees explaining he had a five year “restoration” plan for Moore to go through while working at Cedarville.

Bloggers Todd Wilhelm, Julie Roys, and Dee Parsons recently broke this story, pointing out many inconsistencies in White’s description of the events. White fired Moore when this came to light, and the board has now placed White on administrative leave.

Okay, that’s the background. Now we get to what I want to focus on today.

In digging around more information on White, apparently the man ordered all professors to censor what they taught in class so that it fit with Philippians 4:8, and was only pure and good. One professor was shamed for giving a reading that contained a graphic description of child sex abuse. And he told professors that they should not use the correct terms for genitalia, but should instead refer to those areas as “the part of the body below the waist.”

Think about that for a moment. This is a university president telling professors that they cannot say the words “penis” and “vagina” and “vulva” and “foreskin” and “hymen” or whatever other terms you want to use to students who are adults. 

And then we wonder why we have a problem with sexual shame in the Christian church.

Let’s be clear: When you aren’t allowed to say words for things, then what you’re saying is, “these things should not be talked about.” Without words, you make it much harder to talk about anything, and so taking away the words takes away the conversation. When you make something off-limits for conversation, then you attach shame to it. You say, “this isn’t appropriate to talk about or think about.” You give the impression that these things are somehow bad or shameful.

I’ve shared before how I was particularly bad at this with my kids.

Woo Hoo! Everything You Need to Tell Your Daughter About Sex, Puberty and Growing Up

One day we’re grocery shopping around a holiday, when the parking lot is packed. I’m unpacking the groceries into the car, while the girls are hanging on outside of it. And Rebecca says, in a very loud voice, “Mommy, why do you have hair on your bum and I don’t?”

Other shoppers stared at me and started to snicker. Was I really some werewolf under these mom jeans? Did I really have hair on my backside?

I wasn’t even sure what Rebecca was getting at, until it dawned on me…

I had never given her a word for female genitalia. She didn’t know how to say “vulva” or “vagina”. She just called the whole thing a bum, kind of like a big basketball that extended from the back to the front.

And I had never even realized I was neglecting such a big part of parenting.

Read more here.

I messed up, big time.
And I messed up in a ton of other ways, too (here’s a post on 10 mistakes I made telling my kids about puberty and sex).

The girls and I joke about this a lot, and it was in one of those joking conversations that I dared them to do it better, which is how The Whole Story, our puberty course for moms & daughters and for fathers & sons was born. (Or for single moms and sons!). My girls filmed the videos to tell your girls everything, and then discussion questions and mother-daughter activities invite you to continue those conversations. And our boys’ version features Sheldon Neil from Crossroads TV letting your boys in on The Whole Story, while my sons-in-law Connor and David share their experiences growing up.

And, yes, we use the real words for genitalia.

Plus we’ve got a super low COVID price, since this is an opportune time while you’re stuck at home doing sex ed with your kids to take the course!

Are you terrified to give your kids “the talk?”

We want to help. So we created The Whole Story: an online video-based course to help parents tell their children about sex, puberty, and growing up.

Let us start those awkward conversations, so you can finish them!

But giving kids the real words for body parts empowers them.

First, it gives them words to use if something bad happens.

They can tell you if anyone tries to touch them inappropriately, because they have words for those body parts, and they don’t feel like they’re somehow invisible or something to be ashamed of.

Second, it helps you talk about things in a matter-of-fact manner

If kids say, “how are girls and boys different?” Being able to say, “you have different body parts. He has a penis and girls have a vagina,” is a lot easier than “He has a ding dong and she has a hoo-haw.”

Or if your children self-stimulate (which many kids do!), it’s easier to talk about: “We don’t touch our penis in front of people,” or “It’s not polite to play with your penis (or your vulva) in front of people.” It’s less shame inducing.

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There’s nothing wrong with cutesy words for body parts, too.

It’s okay to use cutesy words as long as the actual terms are also in the kids’ vocabulary. We call toes “little piggies”, but they still know that it’s a toe. So if you call it a “dingle-do”, a “little wean”, a “peenie-pooh”, that’s okay. Just make sure they also know it’s a penis!

I know it can feel awkward to use real words for body parts, especially if you didn’t grow up saying them. But practice makes things a lot easier! The more you say the words, the easier it will get. And the younger you start with your kids, the easier it will be.

Seriously, there’s no reason on earth that university students should not use real words for genitalia.

The fact that in 2020 a university president is forbidding this is such an indictment of modern Christian culture, and we have to resist it. This causes such shame. It makes sexual abuse worse. It pushes problems underground.

God made our bodies beautiful, and that includes your penis, your vagina, your vulva, your clitoris, your foreskin, your frenulum, all of those parts. You were beautifully and wonderfully made. So were your kids. So are Cedarville University students. So let’s not live in shame!

And if you’re still struggling, check out our Sex Ed for Adults post, with stuff that all adults should know.

What do you think? What makes it easier to talk about body parts? How do you handle it with your kids? How did you grow up? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. AJ

    I think descriptive words are also very important for men who want to help their wives achieve maximum sexual pleasure. “Vagina” is the most misused word when it comes to describing the female genitalia. In order for a man to be the best lover he can be to his wife I believe it is very important to be able to understand the meaning of vagina, vulva, labia, clitoris, etc. and the location and importance of these parts in a woman’s arousal and sexual pleasure. A man will have trouble sexually pleasing his wife if he doesn’t have at least some understanding of the parts of her genitalia. To a lot of men everything between a their wife’s legs is a “vagina”.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      So true, AJ!

  2. Jenn Schmidt

    “Why kids should know ‘penis’ and ‘vagina'”
    While I whole-heartedly agree with the message of this post, I would offer one point of critique:
    Yes, girls have a vagina but it’s not the name for the part that can be seen (a vagina requires a medical instrument for proper viewing). Rather, the VULVA is the proper term for the female genitalia that can be seen and is easily identifiable.
    I would argue that “Boys have a penis and girls have a vulva” is the phraseology we should be using because these are the names for the body parts that correlate with one another. Furthermore, while the vagina is the part of the woman’s body that gives man pleasure, the vulva is where the woman feels her pleasure! Personally, I think this perhaps gets to the deeper meaning as to why it is said that “girls have a vagina” instead of “girls have a vulva”…
    Again, I know your heart in this post and love the message contained! But I’d encourage all of us to use the RIGHT words to our children, and especially use words that help both our boys and girls to confidently claim the beauty and holiness of their own sexuality.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I love that! I also think we should tell our girls BOTH words (just like boys need to know penis and testicles). But great point!

    • Andrea

      The correlate to the penis is actually the clitoris. Let’s emphasize the organs that bring each the most pleasure.

  3. Ina

    We really zeroed in on this with my last pregnancy and took advantagec of it to teach preschooler about her body. The baby lives in mama’s uterus, the baby will come out of mama’s vagina just like you did, papa doesn’t have a uterus or vagina etc… (Though she had the misconception that she would grow a penis when she got older and then be able to pee standing up 🤦‍♀️)
    The books “What’s in there? All About You Before You Were Born” and “Who has What?” By Robie Harris are really good. Though they do fall into the trap of calling the whole area a vagina instead of vulva. I intend to go through his other book, “It’s Not the Stork!” With my girls in a few more years.

  4. Cara

    Idk, we tend to call it a front bottom and a back bottom when they’re little. Now that they’re older they definitely know the proper names. But I really didn’t want my 3-4yo loudly announcing that her VAGINA hurt in the grocery store lol. (Same reason we didn’t allow the words butt and fart-I didn’t want them used loudly in public!).
    I gave my girls the American Girl book “the care and keeping of you” and had them read it chapter by chapter and then check in with me after each chapter. I didn’t have one for my oldest son but just found out they have one so I bought it for my youngest son!!
    As far as sex, I have talked to all 3 of the older ones. Just talked. No curriculum, no guide. So far so good. After telling them everything I could think of, I left it with they could ask me ANYTHING. But that they were never to google.
    And from some of the questions I got, they were pretty comfortable asking me. 😭😭😂😂.
    One more to go.

  5. Tee

    I have always used the proper words for body parts with my boys (4 and 2). Penis, testicles, vagina, etc. We are also fairly open in our house. I’m 38 weeks pregnant and shower with our 4yo. He knows where the baby is growing and how it’s going to make it into this world. If he has anything to say about it he will watch it he born (which I am 100% ok with and we talk about… bodies and birthing and nursing are all biological and completely normal).
    The more normalized bodies are the less shame there is and mystery. Bodies are pretty biologically basic. We shouldn’t create mystique and mystery. It just confuses things.

  6. Jane Eyre

    Using nicknames for body parts squicks me out: I do not like the idea that parts of my body are to be giggled at. Our bodies are to be respected, and I think kids can grasp the idea that some parts of their bodies are private without that privacy somehow meaning shame.

  7. Amy

    Animals have these parts too! My daughter shows rabbits in 4-H and they have a contest where they judge their rabbit in front of the judge (showmanship). They have to check all the rabbits parts – including the reproductive parts. So, my daughter has been trained that her male rabbit has a penis, and she has to show his penis and say what it is to the judge at rabbit contests. (btw – girl rabbits don’t have a vagina, they have a vent) My point is, after a few giggles at first, my daughter very matter-of-factly knows that her male rabbits have penises and her female rabbits have vents. She would look ridiculous at the rabbit show if she called her rabbit’s penis a ding-dong or any such word. If we can teach 4-H kids as young as age seven how to properly name body parts, why oh why can’t college students (aka adults) do that too?

    • Madeline

      That’s so great! I’m sure your daughter comes across as much more mature and intelligent being able to matter-of-factly name her rabbits’ parts rather than the “wee-wee.”

  8. Lauren

    My 3 year old daughter recently announced that she didn’t want to eat any peanuts, because that would turn her into a boy. It took a little bit of discussion to figure out that she thought “peanuts” and “penis” were the same word!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire


  9. Kathryn

    Really love this post!!
    When I grew up I didn’t know the names of private body parts and always felt so much shame around that.
    So now what I do for my daughter (she’s 18 months)when I bathe her I name what I’m washing so that she will grow up knowing the proper names for her private parts without all that shame.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s awesome!

  10. Susanna Musser

    Ok, this is an honest question. Would we really rather our kids call out “Mommy, why does your vulva have hair on it and mine doesn’t?” in public? I personally would rather wait until my kids are past that stage.

    • Ina

      I’d rather have a few embarrassing moments than my children not have the words to express themselves if, God forbid, something were to happen. I’ve heard too many horror stories to want to chance it.
      Besides, vulvas have hair. Should it really be a bigger deal for my kid to ask about it than for her to ask why my hair is brown and her’s is blonde? We make it weird but I’m not convinced it has to be.

    • Meredith

      Yes, I would want them to do that. There is nothing embarrassing or shameful about kids using those words in public. It is we, the adults, who have created the embarrassment and shame. If we act like there is something wrong with those words, our kids will quickly learn to attach that “wrongness” to their body parts. I did. I was at least ten before my mom told me what I had and what my brother had. And the lack of straightforward communication contributed to deep feelings of guilt and dirtiness about my body.
      My 4 year old son knows that he and all other boys have a penis. He knows that his little sister has a vagina (though she often insists she has a “EENIS” too! Ha!) when I’m cleaning her bottom after a dirty diaper I will tell her I need to clean between her labia. My son knows that these are private parts and that we don’t allow anyone else to touch them. But we speak of them in a matter-of-fact, ordinary way the same way we’d talk about an elbow or a forehead or a finger. They are good, functional body parts.

    • Madeline

      Its worth risking an embarrassing moment to increase your child’s safety.

      • Madeline

        Seriously is it more embarrassing as a parent to have a child who asked you about your vulva in public or is it more embarrassing to know you could have protected them against something as horrible as sexual assault and you knowingly chose not to?

  11. Rachel C

    I admit to not knowing what my genital areas were called until my mom taught me about puberty and sex when I was ten. We also didn’t use the term “butt.” My mom insisted we use “bottom.” So, I thought of all of it as my bottom. Luckily, I never had a reason to need to know what a vulva or vagina was.
    But I do use the correct terms with my sons, especially since the world they’re growing up in is a little scarier. However, just because we do use the word “penis” doesn’t mean we never say “privates” or “crotch.”
    I did have an amusing moment with my 3-year-old the other day. He has a speech delay, but he still basically asked if his penis was another belly button. I had a hard time not laughing through that lesson. He might not remember it, but I was still going to tell him what it was.

  12. Bethany#2

    While I agree with you about the proper names and all, I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy to be naked around children. Do children really want to know what a parent looks like unclothed? The arguments about making naked bodies as a normal healthy, unashamed thing, only goes so far. That’s the argument I’ve heard feminist protesters use for protesting basically naked.
    In my opinion, the memory of a naked parent, would hinder a future sex life in marriage.
    I’m not sure if it’s always harmful if it’s done right. I don’t know if anyone has researched this specific topic!
    For me personally, I was the last child allowed to shower with her as a 4 and younger. She thought that we would forget the image of seeing her. But she realized she was wrong when I was asking questions. “Why are you so hairy?” And something about her big belly….she was pregnant with a sibling. So for me, I decided that children shouldn’t be scarred with seeing parents like that.
    Now daughters watching birth, that’s probably a good idea! I ended up having a sister in the room for my birth.

    • Madeline

      I get why maybe seeing the opposite gender parent naked may be problematic but I really don’t get how seeing your parent of the same gender would be scarring? I think the last time I saw my mom naked was in my early teen years so I definitely remember it and I honestly don’t know why that would harm a person’s sex life.
      Plus its not all that uncommon to glimpse naked people (of the same gender) in gym locker rooms and such. When I’m in Japan I’m not afraid of being naked in the baths (again, gender segregated) because in that context it really isn’t a big deal. Why would that not also apply to your relatives?

      • Bethany#2

        That’s a good point about the locker rooms! I just noticed Alot of comments speaking about it, and it definitely is a parent to parent decision.
        I don’t know, I just think that how you teach children and show them how to handle bodies and privacy, it’s important. Regardless of how/what you believe.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      We stopped opposite sex parent being naked once children were talking age and could remember. But the girls always saw me naked. We did a lot of swimming at the Y; it was just natural. I think girls should know what an adult woman’s body looks like, and I think boys should know what an adult man’s body looks like. And the girls always saw each other naked, too. It just wasn’t a big deal for us.

      • Jane

        This is something I think about as a mom of only boys. I don’t walk around naked, but I will walk from the bedroom to the bathroom in my underclothes because our society easily objectifies women and I want my sons to be familiar and comfortable with a normal woman’s body and see that I’m comfortable with my body.

  13. Rachael

    Letting you kid know the function of genitals at a young age is a good idea too. From about age 3 until I was 7 I used to look at my vagina a lot because I was mystified why I had a hole in my body that had no apparent function, unlike all the other holes. I used to stick things inside it too trying to figure out what it did. I was lucky I never hurt myself. My mom just thought I was masturbating and never stopped me or told me what it was for until I was 9.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, wow! That’s a great point. I’m going to remember that story!

  14. JD Head

    I agree with the thrust of this article: my wife and I have taught our children before they were even school age the proper terms for sexual parts, the outlines of the sexual act, and so on. We have had many, many conversations with them – usually short, because the fastest way to shorten the conversation is to remove the mystery and deal frankly with what God has, after all given us for his purposes.
    I do take offense at the depiction of Cedarville University, my alma mater. On the basis of articles that themselves do not cite witnesses to the critical issues that were in focus, the ministry not only of one man but an entire institution has been besmirched. I am not defending them on the basis of inside knowledge, nor am I so foolish as to believe that “nothing like that could happen at Cedarville.” The trustees are clearly investigating the matter, and will, Lord willing get to the bottom of it.
    The problem comes in passing on as facts statements that have not been verified as Scripture calls us to verify them: on the testimony of even two or three witnesses. The blog posts that were cited do not give named or verifiable evidence that Scripture calls for – and nothing that supports a bold statement that “The fact that in 2020 a university president is forbidding this is such an indictment of modern Christian culture, and we have to resist it.”

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      JD, those blog posts were just some of many that each has written, and the letters to the trustees and White’s letters are all there. Confirmation of White’s directive regarding curriculum is also there by several students and faculty.
      Also, Moore was fired and White was placed on administrative leave. That means that something big is definitely going on.
      But let’s back up a minute. Even with a glut of Ph.D. candidates to teach at universities, White deliberately hired a man who had been fired and disqualified from ministry because he surreptitiously filmed videos of a man naked without his consent. That’s a crime. And rather than hire another candidate, White hired him to “restore” him. This is not in debate.
      Why are you not more offended on behalf of the students of Cedarville University? Why is more compassion being shown for people with such incredibly terrible judgment than it is for the students? In abuse cases, the sympathy should lie with the victims and those who could have been victimized, not with the abuser and the abuser’s enablers. The fact that we are still getting this wrong is astounding to me.

  15. Madeline

    Wow…the logic of that university. We can’t educate our students about sexual abuse or even allow the medical names for their parts but its not a big deal to hire an actual abuser to be among them. That’s like opening the gate for the wolf to trot right in amongst the sheep.
    On a more positive note: I am really encouraged by reading all the comments by parents who are intentionally teaching their kids proper anatomy and recognize that the kids won’t see it as shameful if their parents don’t teach them that it is. Honestly, great job.

  16. libl

    I have used proper terms, but it is like my kids innately know they are “big grown-up words.” They also seem to dislike any talk about the female anatomy. They get uptight and uncomfortable and ask me not to say anything. (I homeschool and sex-ed is part of it). It’s so strange to me because I raised them from the get-go that it is all natural and matter-of-fact.
    So, they have come up with their own nicknames for the body parts and usually avoid using the medical terms.
    One thing I am trying to overcome, though, is the generic use if the term vagina for the whole of the female anatomy. Vulva, labia, etc are more accurate terms.

  17. Buttercup

    Here in Scotland the official practice in nurseries and school and in the health service advice is that penis and vulva are used and taught as, as well as abuse cases, other injuries, pain, or problems are easily understood by everyone involved rather than different nicknames meaning different things in different families. I find this actually much more comfortable than slang terms as I’m a scientist and it keeps it all at that biological level rather than potentially crude or embarrassing terms.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yep! It really is so important especially in cases of abuse.

  18. Anon

    To those parents who don’t want to teach small children the real names in case they embarrass you by using them in public – please reconsider. I have a friend who has worked with very young victims of sexual abuse – she says it is heartbreaking that many of them were unable to ask for help because they didn’t know how to explain what is happening. And she has seen court cases thrown out, because kids were unable to explain what had happened to them because they had been taught only to use flowery euphemisms which the defence tore apart. Teaching your kids correct terminology is one of the best things you can do to keep them safe and give them a healthy understanding of sex.
    Speaking as someone who was brought up with the ‘that’s embarrassing, we don’t talk about it’ view, and who has taken years to develop a healthy understanding of sex (not to mention an understanding of what actually takes place – I was in my late teens before I understood the basics by sneaking a read of a book that was intended for 8 year olds! – and didn’t fully understand it until I read TGGGTGS this year!!!) I can’t overemphasize the damage that woolly teaching does in this area.

  19. anon

    I was raped when I was five years old. I had absolutely NO vocabulary to describe what had happened to me beyond “bottom.” My attacker had told me I would be in big trouble if I told anyone, but I do remember trying to tell my mom. She assumed I was telling her he had spanked me and forgot the whole incident (years later she would tell me she just couldn’t imagine this person would have done anything more serious than that). I was so confused because I knew that wasn’t a spanking, I just had no words for it. I was five years old when I was raped and I was 23 before I finally explained the incident to my parents. Children often only try to tell ONCE.
    PLEASE teach your children the names for their body parts!
    My young daughters know the proper names for their body parts, and they use them. In public. At church. I am not embarrassed but this, and have corrected well-meaning relatives who have tried to teach them euphemisms when they use correct terminology. God made those body parts and there’s no shame in their names. If my girls can TELL me someone “touched their vulva,” or “he showed me his penis,” they are less desirable as targets of a sexual predator.

  20. Bibliosworm

    Using the correct words can take some practice. My family never really talked about sex or bodies at all so I never got comfortable using any words, anatomical or euphemistic. When I got married I learned that my husband still uses the word “thing” which he does to this day. So when I found out our first child was a boy, I knew I needed to learn how to say penis out loud. So I practiced. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and I said lots of things out loud over and over again trying to get used to the feel of the words. I felt ridiculous but there’s no denying there was a strong verbal hesitance that I had to overcome. It’s probably the same feeling one would get trying to learn to swear fluently having never used profanity before. It was uncomfortable and my brain and mouth did not want to let the words come out.
    I did succeed at teaching my boys the word penis. They’re 5 and 3 and they use it constantly. Lol!
    They’re growing and learning and I need to be ready. The eldest pointed at a picture recently and asked “what are those bumps?” So I took a deep breath and reminded myself that this matters and explained breasts and a little about how male and female bodies are different. He lost interest quickly but it’s a start.
    I’m not sure if this has been done before, but I would really love a resource list. Perhaps your readers could suggest their favorite books (or other resources) that they’ve used for teaching their kids ? I know some have commented but it would be useful to have them all dumped in one spot.

    • Maria

      Not a resource to offer, but an idea for how to talk to one’s children. “You know how male and female private parts look different? Well, they fit together like puzzle pieces and when a man and woman do that they can make a baby start growing inside her.” Hat tip to simcha fisher, I believe her blog is where I read that.

  21. Active Mom

    We have always used the correct term for genitalia. We did say vagina instead of vulva when they were younger and then once they were older and able to understand more detail taught them all of the different correct names, vulva etc. We also made sure the boys and girls knew the correct terms for their opposite gendered siblings genitalia. I didn’t want my daughters to be embarrassed by boys bodies and vice versa.
    My girls will also see me naked and or in undergarments. With all of the air brushed photos on social media I want them to understand what a “normal” body is supposed to look like. We talk openly about periods and how puberty changes the body. I don’t want them to ever be embarrassed. I remember when my oldest came home from school after they discussed the reproductive system and puberty, my oldest was shocked that classmates (in 5th grade) didn’t know the correct term for parts of the body. I wanted to be the resource my child came to with questions regarding their body. If I was embarrassed or did give them information that classmates had I knew they would go looking somewhere else.

  22. Danielle

    This post was so helpful! Even as an adult, I still definitely struggle with this! I’ll definitely keep this in mind as my baby gets older. Thank you!


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