Nail biting is a common behavior in childhood and may affect up to 50% of children. Nail biting, or onychophagia, typically emerges in children around 3-4 years old. As your child ages, he or she will most likely grow out of it. You child may chew on his/her nails for a variety of reasons.
- Stress relief
Nail biting is the most common of the "nervous habits", which also includes nose picking, hair pulling and thumb sucking.
So long as your child isn't hurting himself/herself and doesn't seem overly stressed, simply keep nails neatly trimmed and allow the habit to break on its own. However, keep an eye out for chronic nail biting.
Chronic Nail Biting
If your child's nail biting leads to sore and bloody fingers, he or she is doing other worrisome behaviors (hair pulling, picking at the skin) or not sleeping well, consult your doctor. There may be psychiatric reasons behind it. Chronic nail biting can lead to serious problems in the nail bed and beyond including:
- Sore, red skin around nails.
- Damaged tissue that makes nails grow which may result in abnormally nail growth shape.
- Higher vulnerability to infections, as more bacteria and viruses are passed from mouth to fingers or from face and fingers to mouth.
Tips to Prevent Nail Biting
It's important to not punish your child for nail biting, as it may worsen the problem. However, if the problem persists long-term, there are options to help curtail the habit including:
- Keep nails trimmed short and neat.
- Apply bitter-tasting nail polish.
- Get a manicure or apply polish. This may encourage children to keep them looking nice.
- Replace nail biting with a good habit, like playing with silly putty, holding a smooth rock, or comfort item.
- Increase the child's awareness of the behavior and give positive reinforcement when they are not nail biting.
When beginning to work with your child on correcting the nail biting behavior, it may be necessary to talk with his/her doctor or psychologist to determine the best approach for your child. They can also discuss the best way for parents to respond to or manage their child's nail biting.