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Ask Dr. Sears: Nose Picker

Q  My 2-year-old is constantly picking her nose. I've tried asking her to stop, telling her it's yucky, ignoring it, offering her tissues, and helping her clean her nose with swabs. Nothing works. Please help!

A Though it may not help to hear it, picking, poking, and pulling at body parts are normal toddler behaviors. At this age, children are curiously exploring their bodies both for the sensation it gives them and for the reaction it gets.

First, be sure that your toddler's nosepicking isn't an attempt to relieve the itch of an allergic nose. Children with nasal allergies to inhalant irritants, such as cigarette smoke or dust, will often pick their nose to relieve the irritation. (Allergic children, however, tend to push up on their nose - dubbed the "allergic salute" - rather than actually pick it.) If your child doesn't show any signs of an allergy - frequent runny nose and/or colds, watery eyes, and sniffing - then the nosepicking is likely a habit.

A dry nose can also itch. Run a humidifier in your child's bedroom and spritz some saltwater nasal spray into her nose a couple times a day to keep it moist if you suspect dryness.

Besides being annoying to see, habitual nosepicking can damage the inside of the nose, leading to nosebleeds. Children can also transfer germs from their nose to their eyes with their fingers, causing eye infections or conjunctivitis. To protect the lining of your daughter's nose and discourage the transfer of germs to herself or others, keep her fingernails short.

When it comes to breaking most bad habits, start by observing which situations set your toddler up. Is she tired, bored, or upset? Is she simply fascinated with her nose? If this is the case, show her how to rub her fingertip around her nose rather than pick it. Then remember the golden words of habit-breaking: Distract and substitute. As soon as you see her finger reaching for her nose, use a cue word or phrase that stops her in her tracks, such as her name, then suggest that she go outside, play ball, or do whatever activity she likes. In short, get her interested in something else.