Nail-biting Not Serious, but Fixable

Question: My son is a typical toddler - very active, inquisitive and generally even tempered. In the last month or so, he has begun biting his nails. I've always assumed that nail-biting is associated with stress, but there have not been any major changes in his routine.

Should I just assume this is a habit unrelated to stress? How should I get him to break this habit? - Advice requested

Answer: Nail-biting can be related to stress. If he is stressed it should show up in other ways such as:

- Poor sleep;

- Grumpy mood;

- Being worried;

- Change in eating;

- Stomach pain;

- Headaches.

Nail-biting can also be related to the problem of eating dirt and other non-food things. This is called pica. If either of these is the case, consult with your son's doctor.

But most nail-biting is not related to any other problem. It is just a habit. Habits can develop by accident and then just continue. Repetitive behavior like nail-biting can be a form of self-soothing. It is something to do.

If children bite their nails quite short, they may irritate the finger or even the nail bed. Sometimes, kids can get a minor infection in their fingers. Occasionally, nail-biters really chew at their fingers and can make them rather unsightly.

The irritation can be a trigger for more nail-biting. This is similar to how children will pick at a scab from a minor cut.

You could just forget about his nail-biting. He will probably stop on his own. Most children his age who bite their nails just stop.

If you decide that you should not or cannot just ignore his nail-biting, it is best to have a plan. Simply nagging him will frustrate you and can interfere with your relationship.

If his nail-biting bothers you, there are a couple of things you can try. Tell him you don't want him to bite his nails. Explain that it is not polite, it will make his fingernails ugly, can lead to infection and it bothers you.

Put hand cream on his fingers to soothe any irritation that might be triggering his nail-biting.

If he doesn't like the taste of the hand cream, this will help. Do this a couple of times each day and repeat it every time you see him biting his nails. Maybe he can do it himself.

Pay positive attention to his nails when they get a bit longer and you have to cut them. You could make something like watching TV depend on his having unbitten nails.

You can use clear nail polish to strengthen his nails and make them more difficult to bite.

Finally, there are over the counter preparations to help people stop biting their nails. They taste terrible, but are not toxic and will do no harm. Ask your pharmacist for help. Follow directions on the package.

Dr. Patrick McGrath is a Psychologist with the Family Help Program, a research and a service program at the IWK Health Centre, and Professor of Psychology, Pediatrics and Psychiatry at Dalhousie University. He lives in Halifax and East LaHave.