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Posted by Dr. Monica Wonnacott | July 6, 2016

Nail Biting: How To Break The Dirty Little Habit

A recent Facebook question post was on how to help children stop biting their nails. It’s not a surprising question given that 45-60% of kids bite their nails. Thankfully, as people age, the habit tends to stop on its own (60% of 10 year-olds vs. 20% of college age vs. 10% of 30 year-olds bite their nails).

Why do kids bite their nails?

Nail biting is generally considered a pretty benign habit, albeit annoying. It is considered one of the self-comforting habits that kids aren’t usually consciously aware of when they are doing it. Kids do it to waste time because they are bored, to relieve tension, or when they feel nervous.

Health Dangers to Worry About

First, kids touch everything. Consequently, their hands are often dirty and covered in germs. Every time they bite their nails, they increase their chances getting sick (the germs go right into the mouth and infect the child). Second, mouths are dirty. The cuticles and nails protect the finger tips. When a child bites those protective coverings with a dirty, bacterial laden mouth, the risk of infection goes up. On a very regular basis I have to drain and treat with oral antibiotics some fingernail abscess that happened because a child was biting his or her nails.

What to do to stop the biting.

  1. Do nothing. Honestly, the experts (the AAP) say to do nothing. Don’t draw attention to the habit and wait. With time, most of the nail biters will stop. Avoid punishment or harsh words.

In case you aren’t good with the do nothing approach—personally, I’m not very patient when I see my kids engaging in bad habits that I want to stop—here are few other tricks to try. Choose what you think will work best for your child’s age and personality.

  1. Scare tactic. This is a tricky tactic and only works for a certain personality type/child. Given the right child, sometimes an honest explanation that biting the nails can cause sickness (from ingesting germs) or a nail infection (which may need draining to fix) is enough to make the child stop. Scare tactics can backfire, so be careful.
  2. Positive reinforcement. These are the “gold star” sticker approaches. Make the rewards as immediate and big/small as needed to be effective. For example, a child earns a gold star if he/she doesn’t bite his/her nails all day. Once he/she has 7 stars, then he/she gets to …(fill in the blank)…get a toy.
  3. Promise a manicure. (This goes with the positive reinforcement). Little girls will sometimes respond to the promise of going to a special place to get nails painted/done.
  4. Teach a child to do something else anytime he/she wants to bite his/her nails. For example, wiggle your fingers for 30 seconds anytime he/she is going to bite the nails.
  5. Try a bitter tasting product. This method brings conscious awareness to the problem. Often times kids don’t even realize that they are biting when they are. Try getting a bitter tasting polish or compound and put it on the nails or cuticles to help remind a child to take fingers out of the mouth–make sure it’s safe.
  6. Engage the child in the solution. If your child is old enough (kindergarten and up), you can get his or her help in coming up with solutions to “the problem” of helping him/her stop biting. You may be surprised at the clever little suggestions that they come up with. Be warned, this method only works if the child understands the problem and wants it to stop.

Best of luck getting your kids to get their fingers out of their mouths. It’s a habit that drives me crazy and hopefully one you can break!