Small toddler biting his nails

As a parent, you will encounter loads of bizarre habits in your children. Be it hair pulling, thumb sucking, nose picking or nail-biting, there will be something. Some of these habits may unnerve you, while others make for funny video clips.

While nail-biting is a common habit in young and old, children are more prone to this impulse control disorder. Approximately 30% of all kids actively bite their nails and this behaviour is known as onychophagia.

Read on to find tips on how to stop kids from biting their nails and ways to figure out why they are doing this. 

How to recognize nail biting in children

Before we get into how to stop nail biting in children, we need to know how to recognize if the child has been biting their nails. 

If you’re cutting their nails weekly or fortnightly, you’ll instantly know. Nails, much like hair, don’t just stop growing unless there’s something wrong. If little Lisa has trimmed nails and you did not cut using nail clippers or infant scissors, then she’s probably trimming them with her pearly whites.

No one can really explain why, but when asked if they’re biting their nails, a child will usually deny doing it. Maybe they’re humiliated by it, or the habit has formed and progressed beyond the point of limited toddler constraint. Either way, once you know about it, you must find out why they’re doing it, and what you can do about it.

Why do kids bite their nails and how can you get them to stop?

There is usually a reason why kids bite nails. And once you’ve figured out what the reason is, helping them stop the habit becomes easier. 

1. Concentration or boredom

If you see your child going at it while watching a movie, when they’re reading a book, or when they’re busy with a task, it might be because they are concentrating on what they’re doing. 

Similarly, they might be strolling around outside, taking in the sights, mesmerised by the sounds of the birds, and biting at their nails. Whether because of their intense concentration or their complete lack of concentration, chances are your child isn’t even aware that they are doing it.

The solution: Direct their fingers elsewhere. Especially if you have a toddler biting nails, as they’re likely not fully aware of their actions. Give them a toy or a multicoloured wooden block while watching telly, or a piece of string when you are reading them a book at night.

2. Nervousness or anxiety

Take note of when your child bites their nails. If it’s at school, it could be linked to their fear of a bully on the playground. If he bites his nails at mealtimes, it could indicate anxiety around being forced to eat everything on his plate, or having to try unfamiliar foods. 

These are two vastly different situations that require different methods to address the habit.

The solution: In these cases, nail-biting is purely a symptom or coping behaviour, so you need to address the root cause of the anxiety. Don’t make a big deal of the behaviour but speak to your child to see what can be done to minimise their anxiety. While the nail-biting itself isn’t enough to warrant an appointment with a professional, seeking expert help may help you navigate the underlying cause.How to stop kids from biting nails: child's hand and fingernails

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3. Teething

Nail biting in toddlers can be caused by their teeth coming in

The second set of molars emerge posterior to the first set of molars, and they can erupt anywhere between 19 and 36 months. The process of the molars coming in, pushing up through the gums and putting stress on the other teeth, can have an irritating effect on your child’s gums and teeth.

The solution: Give them something safe to bite or grind their teeth on. In our case, we gave our little ones a wooden spoon and told them to go wild on the handle. Sure enough, biting the handle did the job.

4. Fear about nail trimming

After having worked our way down a list of reasons that could contribute to our son’s new-found habit of nipping at his fingertips, we discovered that the whole thing stemmed from an incident where we had trimmed his nails a bit too close to the cuticle. That minor incident had given birth to a reluctance to trim nails, and eventually to his reasoning that if he trimmed them himself, we wouldn’t have to.

The solution: Over the following months, we took great care not to hurt him while trimming nails after bath time. We slowly eased him into the trimming process by involving all the kids. We even tried to make nail care fun and fascinating. We sat them all down and explained to them how their nails worked – what was the cuticle, what we trimmed, where we should cut the nail away, and showed them how to do it themselves.

How to stop kids from biting nails: child's hands and fingernails

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Kids biting nails: what’s the worst that can happen?

Children biting nails may seem like a very natural occurrence, but there are very real reasons why your little one should keep those pearly whites away from their fingers. 

While this is by no means a sure guide to the horrors that await your little angel, it is good to know what can happen if their nail-biting habit gets way out of hand. In short, biting can lead to:

  • Severe shortening of their nails
  • Constantly broken skin on the fingertips
  • Increased risk of chronic paronychia (a nail disease following a fungal infection)
  • Partial destruction of the cuticle or the nail plate
  • And, of course, other secondary infections

While these are extreme end results, each one of them began as an innocent biting of that very first nail and grew into a problem from there. Understanding the worst-case scenario can help gauge the seriousness of the situation.

Learning how to get kids to stop biting nails, depending on what’s causing the habit, will help make sure you have the skills to support your child in breaking the habit.