My kid bites his nails. Help me stop him.
August 21, 2018 4:42 PM   Subscribe

My toddler bites his nails all the time. The pediatrician told me to "redirect" him. I think this advice is hard to follow. What techniques have you used to keep your kid from biting his nails?

I'm using some bad-tasting nail polish I found at Sally Beauty, which does indeed taste bad but seems to wash away very easily. (This is after using two bad-tasting polishes that tasted like nothing at all, not sure what was up with that...) I put it on him at night. It seems to work a little but he plays with the hose a lot and I think it's washing off. Babysitters have advised rubbing jalapenos on his fingers ("but make sure he doesn't touch himself afterwards!"), which I'm also leery of. I'm looking for brand names of bad-tasting polish that have worked for you, or other techniques that have worked for you. Soap? Lemon juice? Let's assume I want to do this in the gentlest way possible and also - he's a toddler, so I don't expect that logic or negative behavior reinforcement techniques are going to be useful here.

Yes, he learned this from me. I have my nails in my mouth all the time. I am biting my nails as I am writing this. Whatever I decide to do, I will be doing it with him, for solidarity!
posted by Vatnesine to Health & Fitness (17 answers total)
Seriously, having some other way to focus my energy is the only thing that helps me.
posted by amtho at 4:44 PM on August 21, 2018

This is the only stuff that works for me.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:13 PM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Read him the baranstein bears: the bad habit. In that book, sister bear stops biting her nails by getting 10 pennies a day, and giving up a penny every time she nail bites. A toddler is young, but he may identify with her.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 5:31 PM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

What broke my nail biting habit as a teenager was getting braces. The obstruction was enough and by the time my braces were off, the desire was completely gone. While braces wouldn't be an option here, perhaps something that physically obstructs nail biting somehow (as opposed to nasty tasting thing)? I don't know what would be safe for a toddler, though. Maybe for you, you could wear a mouthguard of some sort?
posted by acidnova at 5:32 PM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have at some points in my life bitten my nails. What worked for me until the habit faded was to just keep my nails trimmed super-short so there's nothing to bite.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:06 PM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Gloves. He can chew on the fingertips instead.

Also, consider upping his water intake. My nervous habits (nail biting, hair pulling, etc) are sometimes triggered by me being dehydrated. I think this was the case with me as a little kid, too. YMMV.
posted by Hermione Granger at 6:15 PM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I had asked about toddler nail biting last Nov, which started when my son was 2.5 yrs old (Nail Biting Question). Most answers were to redirect and keep nails short.

While definitely not the easiest thing with a toddler, we did double down on this strategy and I am happy to say that he rarely has his fingers in his mouth now. It did take work to stay vigilant and to not be frustrated after redirecting for the nth time in an hour, but we noticed a lessening after only a couple weeks.

Hope that helps. Good luck.
posted by MandaSayGrr at 6:46 PM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Something else to chew on. I switched to my own clothes, unfortunately; 0/10 Would Not Recommend. Luckily chewable jewelry is a thing now.
posted by capricorn at 7:25 PM on August 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

My 9 year old bites too and no bitter nail polish has worked.
posted by k8t at 8:21 PM on August 21, 2018

I am a lifelong nail biter, and nothing my parents tried ever worked on me, but I came up with a coping tactic on my own as an adult. Your kid may be too young for this, but it might help you. I gave myself permission to bite one fingernail only. It doesn't matter which one, and sometimes I rotate.
posted by candyland at 9:15 PM on August 21, 2018

This is probably not really applicable to a toddler, but for yourself a suggestion that has worked for me the past year. Basically, I started wearing rings. I now fiddle with the ring on my finger (take it on and off, twirl it around my finger, etc.). I didn't start this as a way to intentionally stop biting my nails. Previously I'd had some success with just resolving to stop biting them, and paying attention was enough to make some progress though I'd inevitably start again. I just need a nervous habit to indulge in, I think. YMMV but I recommend cultivation of an alternative nervous habit.
posted by knownfossils at 10:48 PM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was 9 when I started, saw a girl biting her nails, told her it was disgusting, woke the next day with the habit and it was totally unbreakable. I was an anxious child and something just clicked. Since your kid is so young I would really try with the alternative habits now. No advice as to what though. But try not to let it stick (easier said than done!)

For anyone who feels it's hopeless, I finally broke it aged 27 or so. I painted that bitter stuff on all my fingers multiple times a day (kept it on my desk at work) and totally covered them down to the first knuckle. I went through so many bottles and it was so disgusting, tainted the taste of everything and eventually it was so gross I was phobic about putting my fingers near my mouth and stopped. Not before automatically biting them and being repelled hundreds of times and yet still doing it. Hardest thing ever. Thank god I never took up smoking.

I just don't think you can do such aggressive treatment with a kid. Certainly the stuff didn't work when my parents tried it following the directions. I had to use about 100 times as much. And I still allow myself to bite my thumb nails.
posted by kitten magic at 12:29 AM on August 22, 2018

Fidget cube and rings for me as an adult. Zip bracelets too. Maybe a chew necklace for him? It might be fun to teach him to cross his fingers if he can't do that yet (like when he goes to bite a nail, that's when to encourage cross fingers instead, for basically fun).
posted by lokta at 2:29 AM on August 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have a four-year-old with a scratching habit due to eczema - not exactly the same but the approach is probably more similar than with an adult nail-biting habit. Deterrents don’t completely work, though there are things we’ve used (anti-scratch mitts, regular nail filing) that would probably work for nail biting too. You’re right that punishment, or anything that resembles it, won’t work.

Distraction and redirection are best, though not perfect, and it requires both a lot of attention and a lot of trial and error to find out what works best. It might be an alternate activity for his hands/mouth, or it might be something otherwise engrossing - we have success with reading stories, going outside to play/walk, and recently these DIY glitter bottles that he totally ignored as a younger kid, go figure. Basically any kind of HEY LOOKIT THIS! has potential to break a really strong habit loop in progress.

We do sticker/coin rewards too, but those are harder for a smaller kid to grasp, plus rewards for *not* doing something are hard to measure, especially if you know your kid is trying and want to recognize the effort.

Avoiding stressful situations helps, especially if you know your kid bites to self-soothe. You will not be able to avoid them all - don’t let it get in the way of setting and enforcing appropriate boundaries - but if you notice that he’s biting more often in the evening, for example, that might be a sign to set an earlier bedtime.

I also vocalize it whenever I catch myself in the habit around my kid - “Oh! I’m scratching! Oops, I’m going to stop.” Having the habit yourself puts you in a good spot to model breaking it.

Finally - and we have not gotten to this point but are starting to look into it - pediatric behavioral therapists can help with toddler habits.

Good luck! It’s hard but it’s conquerable.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:44 AM on August 22, 2018

I bit my nails from when I was a toddler until it magically stopped (I wasn't trying to quit at the time and I remmeber one day realizing that my nails were long enough that I had to clip them and was stunned) on it's own when I was about 39 (it's been at least two years now).

My memory from when I was a kid was that 1) when I wasn't specifically wanting to stop biting my nails, reminders/scoldings about not biting my nails were annoying nagging that made me dislike my parents. Bad tasting nail polish tasted bad, but you could chew/scrape it off by a sink to spit it out and then be done with it.

Kids rub their eyes/nose frequently - don't try putting jalapeno or something similar on them! Additionally since often I chewed my nails down to the point where they were frequently hurting, something like lemon juice and maybe jalapenos would only make the application of what you use accutely hurt. And then the kid will only remember you hurting them - they won't remember the lesson that you're trying to teach.

The times that I had the most success when trying to quit (and this was only helpful during the times that *I* wanted to quit), was having a nail file on me (and several in convenient places in the house and in my parents car). Because the chewed nails are 1) rough, and 2) so short that the skin of the finger tips pushes up in front of them, as the nails grow the place where nail meets fingertip was exteremly sensitive. Repetitively filing to keep the nail smooth (and pushing down the fingertip flesh) would mostly sooth the itch. I managed to white-knuckle a few periods of 2-5 months without biting while a kid/teen.

Despite having mostly lost the habit, I always keep a nail file on my and one at my desk at work and home in case my normal one is lost. If a nail breaks or gets a rough edge I still have strong urges to bite - filing down the rough edge makes the urge go away.

Despite the mostly constant 30+ years nailbiting my front teeth are fine and I wasn't specifically sick more often than my non-nail biting sister. What I'm getting at is maybe don't stress too much about it, but instead make sure your kid is great at washing their hands and support them when/if they say that want to break the habit.
posted by nobeagle at 6:47 AM on August 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Mavala was the only thing that worked for me. I tried getting acrylic nails and I would just peel off the polish with my teeth. Other bitter polishes didn't work. But that one did, and while I still put my hands near my mouth all the time I no longer bite my nails! 4 years or so and still going strong.
posted by cobain_angel at 11:11 AM on August 22, 2018

The only thing that's helped reduce (not eliminate) nailbiting for me was to keep my nails trimmed fairly short. Basically, as soon as I realize I'm chewing on my nails, I switch to trimming them. I keep a pair of nail trimmers in my backpack for this purpose.
posted by Aleyn at 6:51 PM on August 22, 2018

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