Don’t stress over nail-biting

IF YOUR preschooler has started biting his or her nails, it’s not worth getting yourself in a state about it.

So says Prof Alf Nicholson, consultant paediatrician at Temple Street Children’s University Hospital and co-author of When Your Child is Sick, What You Can Do to Help. He finds up to one in four young children nail-bite or suck their thumb. “It begins as a habit – the first instinct is to put the finger in the mouth.”

Describing it as “almost universal” he says it can emerge out of a kind of nervous energy. But it can just as easily happen out of boredom or curiosity. He counsels against making it a big deal.

“With young children, when you pressure them or try to get on top of the habit, they can react by doing it more. With a bit of encouragement, perhaps saying ‘I’d rather you didn’t do that – I don’t think it’s a nice habit’, most children outgrow nail-biting.”

It’s estimated that 20%-33% of children aged seven to 10 and 45% of adolescents are nail-biters. If an older child starts, try to find out why. Perhaps you’ve recently moved or there has been a bereavement, separation or family crisis and it is a nervous reaction. If it has come out of the blue, perhaps gently ask your child why it has started or chat with a teacher to discover if there are tensions at school.

Try to pinpoint times of day or activities (TV watching or listening to a story) that prompt a bout of nail-biting. At such times, distract your child by supplying them with a chance to do something else with their hands – hold a pliable toy or squeeze a ball. It’s a good idea to keep nails neatly trimmed so your child isn’t tempted to chew on cuticles or edgy corners.

While there are bitter-tasting preparations that can be applied to the nail in a bid to discourage the habit, Nicholson says this is “a bit of a last gasp saloon” and he’s never seen a nail-bed infection from the habit.

However, if your child bites their nails severely enough to tear the nail-bed or cause bleeding or if they manifest self-destructive behaviour such as pulling hair out and tugging eyelashes, or they aren’t sleeping well, say it to your GP to rule out problematic anxiety or stress. If the habit has emerged suddenly and gotten worse quickly, it counts as significant change in your child’s behaviour: such change always needs investigation.

But if your child isn’t harming themself and doesn’t seem overly stressed, bide your time. If you haven’t nagged about the habit, they’ll be more likely to stop when ready or – if they want to quit – ask you for help.

Top tips

* Keep calm – it’s generally a benign issue.

* Gently encourage child to otherwise occupy his or her hands – play with beads or squeeze a sponge.

* Where possible, engage the child’s participation in breaking the habit.

* Wearing mittens to cover hands might be a useful habit-avoidance reminder – opt for this only if child is happy to co-operate.


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