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How can you stop nail biting and thumb sucking?

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Hi Doctor Laura:

My daughter who is almost two has taken up the habit of biting her nails. I'm at a loss as to how to get her to stop. I've tried telling her "no, take your fingers out of your mouth." That works in the moment only.

I think she started doing this by accident (plus Daddy bites his nails) -- but liked the "click" sound that her teeth make on the nail. So, now what? She knows she's not suppose to do it -- she even tells Daddy "No-No Daddy" if she see's him biting his nails!

I'm considering trying the thumb sucking stuff that you rub on their thumbs to get them to stop thumb sucking? Any other advice? Suggestions?

Thanks, Christa


It's not unusual for kids to begin biting their nails, and your daughter will probably outgrow it, but I understand you also don't want it to become a habit that lasts her whole life.

The thumb-sucking products you're wondering about are advertised as being safe for kids "over three years old," so it's a bit early to use them with your daughter. Since they are so bitter, I would feel uncomfortable using them on a pre-verbal child. Once kids are older, you can tell them what's happening, so they don't freak out that their nails have become hostile to them. If they don't understand what's happening, they usually scream and cry, especially because they can't get the bad taste out of their mouth and it ends up getting on their food. Parents who have tried it themselves say the nasty taste lasts for ten hours!

However, these products can be very helpful when kids are older. One mom I know told her kid that the thumb fairy comes to four year olds on their fourth birthday to help them stop sucking their thumbs, then painted her daughter's thumb in the night, leaving fairy dust and a present. The girl was so excited she never even complained about giving up her thumb. I think that kind of help is often empowering to kids who are having a hard time quitting a bad habit.

But your little one is still pre-verbal, and too young for these products. What can you do?

1. Check with her pediatrician to be sure that her nail biting is not a form of pica (a disorder in which kids crave nonfood substances like dirt). This is very unlikely, but worth checking.

2.Nail biting is a sign of anxiety, so give her another release for tension. One idea is to get her laughing, which releases anxiety. Another is keeping a cup of water nearby and when she starts to nibble her nails, offer her a drink of water, which is very calming. Another is to teach her that when she chews her nails she needs a deep breath instead, or to sit down and read herself a book.

3. Instead of badgering her and starting a power struggle, set up a signal. When she puts her hand in her mouth you will wink at her to move it. You may need a more forceful signal, like a hug.

4. Notice when she bites her nails, and give her something else at those times to hold and fidget with. For instance, is it in the car? Then keep a little toy or ball in the car that is pliable, fun to squish and mold and fidget with.

5. Give her a new habit. "When you feel like biting your nails, clasp your hands like this and wiggle your fingers."

If she continues this habit despite trying all these things, you may want to look into hypnosis. Apparently, toddlers are very easy to hypnotize,and hypnosis has been proven to be an effective cure for nail biting.

Good luck!

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