Parents have recently been hitting the nail on the head with lots of questions about how to help their children stop biting their nails. Let me bite into this topic and provide some information for everyone to chew on.

Nail biting is a common habit rarely seen before age 3, but quite common as children get older. It is estimated that one third to one half of all children  between 7 and 10 do it, and it appears to run in families. The percentage of nail biters drops as your child gets older, although at least 10 percent of adults still bite their nails – men far more than women. 

Nail biting is rarely harmful. But with persistent biting, the nail bed and cuticle (the hard skin that surrounds the bottom and sides of the nail) can be injured and predispose your child to a skin infection, which is easily treatable.

Nail biting is not always due to your child being anxious or stressed. They may do it simply because they are bored or as an alternative to having recently given up their bottle or blanket and still needing that inner sense of security or comfort of having something they can gnaw on – in this case their nails.

So what do you do about it? My advice is to ignore your child’s nail biting as much as you can, and it will probably go away. 

If you really want to do something, first figure out what might be stressful, anxiety provoking, or boring your child and try to remedy that. It is a great idea to keep the nails trimmed so as to discourage biting. Then try distraction or replacing this behavior with another, such as putting their hands in their pockets or squeezing a small ball.

Painting the nails with a bitter tasting solution may work in the short run, but when the solution wears off, often the habit returns. In addition, a reward system can work wonders, such as telling your daughter that you will paint her nails with nail polish if she promises not to bite them.  Even just praising your child for not biting his or her nails for even one day will go a long way.

Perhaps the best cure is peer pressure, since when your child sees that his or her friends are no longer biting their nails, your child will probably stop as well. 

Hopefully tips like this will nail down the problem of what to do when it comes to handling your child’s nail biting habit.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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