To the public sauna with the opposite gender – should there be a strict age limit? 

There is no clear limit for when children must use same-gender dressing rooms and saunas.
It is common for parents to take their children to opposite-gender sections of public saunas. The practice can have emotional consequences, a psychologist says.

Hamide Sedaghat

Sercan Alkan

Published 10.06.2024 11:31

In Finnish public saunas, there are typically separate sections for different genders. Despite this, it’s common for parents to take small children of the opposite gender with them to the changing room and the sauna.  

Even though in Finnish culture, being naked in sauna is not considered sexual, the experience can be embarrassing and have emotional consequences for both the grown-ups and the children involved. 

In an internet discussion about sauna traditions that I read, a 50-year-old Finnish man wrote about how he was taken to women’s sauna as a child. It made him feel uncomfortable, but no one ever asked about his feelings.  

For the smallest of children, there probably are no problems. It’s unclear, however, until what age it is acceptable to continue this practice. 

A clear age limit would be necessary, says Janna Meunier, a psychologist and a trainer psychotherapist. She reminds that not only the opposite-gender children with their own parents are affected, but also the other children that are present. 

“Different children become conscious about their bodies at different ages. If an eight-year-old boy is taken to women’s changing area, there may be girls of similar age girl who feel this uncomfortable”, Meunier says.  

According to her, most children develop a sense of modesty about their bodies and start to feel a need for privacy. It is a part of normal development and happens usually between ages four and eight. 

“When the body changes related to puberty start, the children usually feel uncomfortable to be naked in front of others, even parents. We must respect their feelings, make convenient conditions for all.” 

Meunier argues for an age limit of seven years. In that age, we consider the children to be independent enough to start school. So, they should also be able to go to sauna and changing room with their own gender. 

The seven-year age limit is used at least in some swimming pools in Helsinki, but it seems there is no strict, yet alone nation-wide regulation. It is more of an unwritten agreement. 

Meunier says it is vital that the parents talk with their children on the subject. 

“Parents should ask a general question to know their opposite-gender child feels comfortable to come with them to a public sauna or prefer to go with another parent, alone, or a reliable person.” 

Different places and people, different practices 

“We recommend seven-year-old children use their own gender dress room and public sauna”, says Tuula Paavola, leading coordinator for Tampere city swimming pools.  

“However, the age is not quite exact. It depends on the child’s maturity.” 

Some parents are worried that a seven-year-old child is too young to manage him/herself. Therefore, there won’t be any actions, if someone takes eight- or nine-year-olds to the opposite gender changing room. 

Sotoodeh is a 47-year-old Afghani mother who has spent most of her life in Iran. I met her in a public swimming pool with her son, who is eight and half years old.  

Sotoodeh’s husband often works weekends, so she takes her son to the swimming pool, changing area, and public sauna. She loves playing in the swimming pool and sauna with her small son, but it also has brought challenges.  

Sotoodeh’s son is born and grown up in Finland, but she has also two elder children, who are over 20 years old and grew up in Iran. 

“In Iran, public pools have separated turns for men and women and children should be taken with the same-gender parents. So, I did not have experience to go swimming pool with my older son in his childhood”. 

Sotoodeh has never heard about the suggested age limitation, she has not had any bad experience of taking her son to women’s section and has never asked about her son’s feelings.  

“The main challenge comes from home,” she says.  

“I always see Finnish boys come with their mothers, so I have taken him with me since he was a baby. But for about two years, my husband has been complaining because of religious orders of Islam and asks me not to take him to a place where women are naked.” 

A question of culture 

In Finnish culture, sauna is considered almost holy. It’s a hygienic space, where in the past people gave birth to their children. It is usually seen that everyone from children to elderly can enjoy the sauna and relax together.  

That is also the experience of Tuula Tuominen, a 54-year-old Finnish mother and a sauna fan.  

“Our family felt to sauna together at all ages,” she recalls. “I still would go to the sauna with them.” 

In her point of view, if having sauna naked with family, friends, and with other couples is ok, depends on families’ culture and feelings. If the whole group feels comfortable, they will go together. If not, they may be separated by gender or wear swimsuits.  

She thinks talking to small children about their feelings and wishes could turn out somewhat complicated.  

“It is useful to understand their feelings, but it may make children more sensitive about others’ bodies in a way they have never thought about before. So, it is important for parents to be smart how to get children’s opinions.” 

However, also Tuominen recognizes some issues in public saunas. 

“I feel uncomfortable when older boys are taken to women’s side and they stare at others’ bodies,” she says.  

“I think for small children, or older ones who have disabilities and need help, going to the other gender’s sauna is acceptable.”