Toddler biting nailsShare on Pinterest
Suzanne Gipson/Offset Images

Nail biting is one of those habits that toddlers sometimes develop. It can be unsightly, annoying (to you!), and even problematic for their health. But like thumb sucking, it usually goes away on its own with time.

But what if it doesn’t? We all probably know people our own age who bite their nails, too. So here are some tips for nipping the habit in the bud — or nail — early.

An estimated 30 to 60 percent of kids and teens bite their nails, so your child isn’t alone. So what causes it?

Some research shows that nail biting may have genetic factors. Also, your toddler could be biting their nails because of the attention (albeit negative) they garner when you insist they stop.

However, most experts pin down nail biting to habit — a repeated behavior that your child isn’t even aware of. Habits develop for three main reasons:

  • Boredom. A bored child may start nibbling at their nails because there isn’t anything more pressing to do.
  • Relief. Nail biting may be a response to stress. (Sort of like reaching for chocolate.)
  • Relaxant. Some kids suck their thumbs to help them fall asleep, while others bite their nails.

Often habits simply wear themselves out and disappear. So usually, there’s no need to worry.

As for the dangers of nail biting itself, they definitely make it worth kicking the habit. Biting your nails can not only cause minor annoyances like hangnails, which may not seem minor at all to your tot, but also lead to infections and tooth problems.

Stopping any habit requires a hefty dose of self-control. When you’re dealing with a toddler who bites their nails, you’ll need double the amount of self-control — yours plus theirs. Here are seven strategies to help.

1. Make sure your child is on board

Your child can’t stop a habit if they don’t know they’re doing it. Plus, they need to be motivated to want to stop biting their nails.

The first step is to make sure you’re a team. Help your child understand that nail biting is a habit that’s worth stopping, especially since it can cause infections and problems with your teeth. You can also talk about hygiene and touching things with fingers that have been in your mouth.

2. Cut nails short

Your toddler can’t bite what isn’t there, so keep their nails well trimmed. This also ensures that bacteria and dirt caught under the nails don’t get into your toddler’s system.

3. Create a code

This may make it fun and even, well, downright conspiratorial to your toddler.

Instead of telling your child to stop nail biting, choose a secret code that you can use to remind them to stop. Options include a specific word that you say, a touch on the shoulder, or a whistle.

4. Suggest substitutes

Help your child keep their hands busy with other things. Offer them rubber balls, Silly Putty, or even a piece of soft fabric to hold. This may work especially well if they bite their nails due to stress or anxiety.

5. Use a reward system

Offer your child a small prize or put a star on a sticker chart for each day they don’t bite their nails. At the end of the week, they get to choose a prize. (For toddlers, this doesn’t need to be big. In fact, a sticker — or, if they’re into it, a fun nail-painting session — may be reward enough.)

6. Mention fun boredom-busting activities

If your tot bites their nails out of frequent boredom, suggest new activities. Coloring books, blank drawing pads, pretend play, pillow forts — these all serve the double purpose of fostering creativity and leaving little room for nail biting.

While you shouldn’t feel guilty about encouraging independent play, you can also distract your child from the habit by taking them to the park, working on a puzzle together, or cooking or baking together.

7. Apply bite-averting nail polish

This might be an option of last resort. And before you use this, make sure your toddler knows what it means.

The burning taste takes the thrill out of nail biting and makes your child more conscious of the habit. The downside is that your child gets a taste of the nail polish even when they’re putting their hands in their mouth for other reasons — like eating finger foods.

On the bad days when your toddler seems to be biting their nails nonstop, you might be tempted to do something that could make things worse.

Endless reprimands, long lectures, yelling, and punishments won’t encourage your child to stop biting their nails. In fact, the negative attention may just make your child more determined to show you who’s the boss of those nails.

Between the ages of 2 and 3 years old, your toddler is at the developmental stage of autonomy versus shame or doubt. At this me-do-it stage, your child is working toward independence. Toddlers who aren’t given the opportunity to behave with age-appropriate independence could begin to doubt their abilities, and this could lead to low self-esteem and feelings of shame.

Sometimes, nail biting could negatively affect your child’s social relationships or interfere with their daily functioning. You’ll notice this happening if your child complains that other children are teasing them about their bitten nails.

Nail biting can also have physical ramifications. It can lead to painful ingrown nails or nail infections caused by bacteria that have entered the damaged skin around the nail.

More rarely, chronic nail biters (usually adolescents) can damage their nail beds and teeth. This is called onychophagia. Research shows that it can be treated using oral devices to help break the habit.

A toddler who adds habits to their repertoire (hair twisting, thumb sucking, nose picking) may be signaling that they’re anxious about something. By spending one-on-one time with your child, you’ll build up a strong parent-child relationship that will help them share what’s going on in their world.

While your child will likely outgrow their nail-biting habit eventually, you can try to help them stop early. This involves good communication, positive reinforcement, and patience — from both of you.

If you’re concerned about how your kiddo’s habit is affecting their health or social relationships, speak with their pediatrician.