Toddler Biting Nails: Why It Happens And How To Stop The Habit

How to Stop A Toddler From Biting Their Nails

March 19, 2021 Updated September 13, 2021

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This article has been medically reviewed by Howard Orel, MD. Board-certified and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Orel runs an active general pediatric practice, Advocare Marlton Pediatrics. He also serves as CEO of Advocare — one of the largest independent medical groups in the country. 

Nail-biting can be one of those “do as I say, not as I do” parts of parenting. If you notice that your toddler is biting their nails, your first reaction may be to tell them to stop doing it and get their dirty fingers out of their sticky mouth. Then, two seconds later, somehow — and trust us when we say that we genuinely don’t know how this happens — we find our own dirty fingers getting an unauthorized manicure, courtesy of our expensive dental work.

We all know that nail-biting is considered a “bad habit,” albeit one that’s far more socially acceptable to admit than, say, smoking cigarettes. And as parents, we want to do what’s best for our kids — including setting them up for a life full of success, free of bloody cuticles. So, if you notice your kiddo’s fingers keep going to their mouth, here’s what to know about how to stop a toddler from biting their nails. We’ve even included a few nail-biting treatments for kids.

What should you know about toddlers biting their nails? 

First of all, let’s address the fact that nail-biting is a very common habit. Around half of all children between the ages of 10 and 18 do it at some point (usually during puberty), according to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Statistics for toddler nail-biting aren’t readily available, but we know it happens. We’ve seen it.

For many people, toddlers included, onychophagia — that’s the fancy medical word for nail-biting — is a coping mechanism for dealing with stress: both the good and bad kinds. Toddlers might also start biting their nails out of boredom, because they see a family member do it, or because they think their nails could use a trim and decide to take matters (their fingernails) into their own hands (mouths).

Is nail-biting dangerous for toddlers?

The good news is that, as gross as your toddler biting their nails can be, it’s not a major health concern in most cases. Dr. Cindy Gellner, a pediatrician at the University of Utah Health, explains in an interview. “In some cases, nail-biting may cause a bacterial infection called paronychia, which requires a doctor’s visit for antibiotics,” she notes. “If your child has warts, they can get around the nail beds. Children touch everything and then, if they put their fingers in their mouth, they can get sick because they have just introduced germs into their body. And some children who bite their nails for years can cause permanent nail damage.”

How can you stop a toddler from biting their nails?

While there is no single surefire way to stop a toddler from biting their nails, there are some strategies and treatments that may help them keep their nails, and you keep your sanity. One thing not to do is punish them for the habit. “The best thing you can do to help your child is to try and figure out why they are biting their nails in the first place,” Gellner explains. “If your child is under a lot of stress, try to reduce the stress. Talk about what is bothering them and ways to handle those situations.”

While you’re getting to the root cause of their nail-biting, here are a few suggestions to try in the meantime:

  • Keep your toddler’s nails trimmed and filed.
  • Provide your child with the opportunity to wear adhesive bandages and/or colorful stickers on/over their nails to make them less accessible and provide a reminder not to do it in the first place.
  • Try distracting your child with another activity — like drawing a picture, writing, or squeezing a stress ball or Silly Putty — when you find them biting their nails.
  • Think about why your kiddo bites their nails. Do they do it when they’re frustrated or feeling anxious? When the trigger is identified, address the problem and find a healthier substitute.
  • Together, make up a “secret” signal with your toddler to remind them to stop biting their nails. Tap your nose or say a catchphrase from their favorite TV show.

And finally, it goes without saying that if you’re a nail-biter yourself, try to kick the habit (or at least stop doing it in front of the kids).