Nail biting may include all the fingers and thumbs or just a select tasty few. Nail biting versus thumb sucking is more of a “nervous” habit than a calming influence. This usually starts as an unconscious behavior and can quickly escalate into an active stress reliever. And nail biting that is not stopped in early childhood, many times progresses into adulthood. If the nail biting only occurs during times of worry or change, such as a recent move or family member separation, talk about the problem or even seek professional help to contribute to ending such behavior.
Nail biting can cause infection under the nails and on the fingertips so keep your child’s nails trimmed short. Tell your daughter (or son) that they can wear nail polish if they agree to refrain from nibbling. Once you see nails in the mouth, polish comes off. An old remedy for biting was a little dab of corn syrup and cayenne pepper on the nails, so the biting then becomes uncomfortable. Of course there is much debate behind this old-fashioned method, by parents, physicians, and psychologists alike, so use old-fashioned remedies as last resort if you find none of your other methods have been successful. You can also try wearing gloves or band-aids with his favorite cartoon character to prevent the chewing.
Sit down with your child and discuss how you can work together to break the habit. Since most children don’t realize they are biting, just as with thumb sucking, try a verbal signal to remind your child (or teenager!) that the biting is occurring. Choose an odd or funny word depending on the age of the child. You will probably get push back from your teen, so alternative words or signals might be necessary.
By Bruce Gach, M.D.
Bruce is the managing partner of Livermore-Pleasanton-San Ramon Pediatrics Group. He is a Board Certified practicing pediatrician with over 30 years of experience caring for children. He has served on numerous committees dealing with child health and development. www.livermorepleasantonpeds.com