Habits are repetitive behaviors that begin in childhood. While some habits are termed good because they are beneficial for one’s physical and mental wellbeing, others are called bad habits as they have negative effects. One such habit is nail biting or onychophagia.
This habit usually begins around three to four years of age, although it may begin earlier in some children. Most parents are concerned about their toddler’s nail biting habits as it may sometimes indicate behavioral issues, such as nervousness and anxiety.
If you are worried about nail biting in your toddler, you will be relieved to know that your child may eventually outgrow the habit as they grow older (1). Read on to learn about the various causes of nail biting in toddlers and ways to curtail the habit.
What Causes Nail Biting In Toddlers?
There may not always be an underlying cause for nail biting in toddlers. Some may do so sporadically without any possible cause. Below are a few reasons why some toddlers may bite their nails (2) (3) (4).
1. Genetics: Some toddlers with a family history of nail biting may be more susceptible to the habit. It is not fully known how genes affect habits such as nail biting.
2. Acquired behavior: If the toddler notices a parent, primary caregiver, or sibling bite their nails often, they may try to emulate the behavior.
3. Boredom: It is normal for some toddlers to bite their nails out of boredom because they have nothing interesting to do.
4. Anxiety: Some toddlers bite their nails when anxious since it distracts and relieves them from the cause of anxiety, making them feel relaxed. A toddler may also bite their nails when scared or fearful.
5. Mental health disorders: In some toddlers, nail biting may be a behavioral manifestation of some underlying psychiatric condition. A few examples are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), separation anxiety disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and Tourette syndrome. A few toddlers may display chronic nail biting due to a behavioral condition called body-focused repetitive behavior.
6. Medications: In very rare cases, nail biting behavior could be a side effect of a medication.
When To Be Concerned About Nail Biting?
Most toddlers tend to bite their nails temporarily. However, you may consult a pediatrician in the following scenarios (1).
- Nail biting has become chronic
- Toddler’s nails are infected with bacteria or fungi
- Frequent nail biting has exposed the nail beds
- Bleeding from the nail beds or fingertips
- Skin around the nails has thickened, or nails grow abnormally
- Nail biting causes other issues, such as ingrown nails
- Nail biting is accompanied by other conditions, such as skin picking, hair plucking, or excess sweating
Does Nail Biting Require Treatment?
There is no specific treatment for nail biting. A doctor may check for the possible underlying cause, such as behavioral issues, to determine the triggers for nail biting in toddlers. The treatment of the underlying condition, either through counseling or medications, usually leads to the cessation of the nail biting habit (2).
Besides the treatment for the cause, some toddlers with severe nail biting habit may undergo the following habit management-related therapies (4).
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Habit reversal training
- Child-friendly relaxation techniques
- Social therapy
- Self-care and exercise techniques
How To Stop Toddler From Biting Nails?
You may try the following interventions at home to discourage the toddler from biting their nails (5).
1. Trim their nails: The simplest way to discourage your toddler from biting their nails is by trimming their nails. Trim the nails short enough so that they are difficult to bite. It could make the toddler look for another activity than bite their nails when bored.
2. Make the toddler aware of the habit: Every time you see your toddler bite their nails, use subtle sentences to remind them of their actions. You may also use a secret code or action, such as a whistle, to alert the toddler. It could make the toddler realize their actions if they tend to zone out and bite their nails. It helps the toddler become mindful of biting nails eventually.
3. Provide alternative activities: Encourage the toddler to turn to other sensory activities whenever they feel tempted to bite their nails. For instance, you may provide them modeling clay or toys with different textures. These could provide adequate sensory stimulation to distract the toddler from nail biting.
4. Praise positive behavior: Appreciate the toddler when you notice them voluntarily avoid biting their nails. Positive reinforcement works great at setting good habits in children. Therefore, praise them with words of encouragement and appreciation when you find them doing the right thing.
5. Encourage communication of anxieties: If you sense your toddler bites nails due to anxiety, speak to them about it. Teach the toddler to reach out to you whenever they feel anxious. You may take the help of other family members or involve an expert for better results.
6. Consider nail biting deterrent nail polish: There are certain non-toxic nail polishes that deter nail biting with their unpleasant taste. Speak to a doctor before trying such nail polishes since not all may be suitable for children.
If home interventions do not seem to work, do not hesitate to take the help of a pediatrician. Never punish or harshly scold the toddler for the behavior. In many cases, the toddler may not have adequate control over the habit. Relevant treatment and therapy could provide relief in cases where you are unable to manage and stop the habit at home.
Nail biting is a common childhood habit that could be seen even in young toddlers. Tackling the triggers could usually reverse this habit. Most toddlers grow out of the habit as they grow physically and cognitively. If the toddler displays chronic nail biting or you sense it could be a sign of an underlying condition, seek professional help.
2. Nail Biting; C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital
3. Can I Get Sick from Biting My Nails; Cedars Sinai
4. Nail Biting: When Does it Go Too Far?;Cleveland Clinic
5. Nail Biting Prevention and Habit Reversal Tips: How to Get Your Child to Stop;Nationwide Children’s Hospital