How to stop nail biting in children

A child with a nail biting habit can pose a big challenge to parents.  Nail biting is a nervous habit, so reacting with anger or harsh discipline may only serve to make the habit even worse than it already is in the first place.  Another challenge with a child who is a nail biter is that there will always be times when you can not completely supervise them, where they will have the opportunity to nibble their nails.  To stop your little one’s nibbling ways, follow these steps.

Explain honestly why it’s important that they stop biting

If you simply tell your child to stop and it’s a “because I say so” moment, they are unlikely to obey you.  Instead, sit down with them and tell them honestly why nail biting concerns you.   Some things you may want to mention are how nail biting can cause infections in the nail bed and cause problems with your teeth,  as well as how putting fingers near your face and mouth can lead to getting sick.  Since many children may have a hard time visualizing what an infection is, do a Google image search on nail biting and print out a few pictures of affected nails. 

If your child is young, a great way to introduce the subject is by reading the book “The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Habit.”  Reading the book together will provide a jumping off point for your discussion.

Reach an agreement together

After your child understands why it’s important to stop nail biting, it’s very important that you get their cooperation to stop nail biting.  By approaching the subject as though it will be a team effort, you will make your child feel that you are on their side instead of like you are against them.  Decide on a system of rewards together that will be awarded to your child for each week they do not bite their nails, up to a few months.  Once you have your child’s agreement, you can begin treatment.

Introduce treatments that will help your child stop

Even after you have your child’s agreement, you will still need to start with treatments that will help them stop with their nail biting.  This is because even if your child is willing to stop, there is a reason that nail biting is called a “habit.” They may not even be conscious of it when they do it.  Some treatments to try include:

Taping the nails: By wrapping a loose layer of masking tape around the tips and beds of your child’s nails, you will not only be protecting the nails themselves, but reminding the child every time they touch something that they are not to bite their nails.  If they forget and bring a nail to their mouth, the tape will remind them not to nibble.  The downside to this method is that the child may feel embarrassed if they have to go to school or day care with taped nails.  In that case, try one of the other methods below.

Stop biting formulas: A formula such as the Mavala Stop-Nail Biting formula ($9.38 at Amazon.com) is a transparent nail-polish like substance with a distinctly bitter taste.  Though it is not noticeable to those who don’t know it’s there, when the child absent-mindedly puts their nails in their mouth, they will experience a reminder not to bite in the form of an unpleasant taste.

Control-It Fingernail Biting Treatment works on the same concept, except that instead of working like a fingernail polish, it is a cream that the hands absorb.  The downside to this product is that if your child eats finger foods frequently, the bitter taste may be transferred.

By working together, you and your child can stop the bad nail biting habit.  It’s a matter of perseverance, positive reinforcement and teamwork.