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On Call: Stopping a Nail Biter

Q. My daughter has been biting her nails for almost a year. How can we get her to stop?

I can relate. My oldest, Michaela, who's now 16, did it for ages, stopping only when she got braces five years ago. Elsa, who's 9, does it, but not excessively, so we're letting it go. It's often just a habit, like thumb sucking, hair twirling, or nose picking (see  -- it could be worse!), in which case your daughter will likely quit on her own.

Nail-biting can signal anxiety, though, so if she's moody, sleeping poorly, or behaving oddly, and you can't figure out what's bugging her, or there's no clear solution to the problem, call your doctor. Same goes if the biting's causing bleeding or infection. If her fingers are simply always in her mouth:

Gently point out the behavior. Putting your hands on hers, or saying "Your nails, sweetie" when she does it, is the way to go.

Keep her hands busy by giving her a small toy to play with, or paper and pencils.

Give positive reinforcement. Even half an hour without biting should get praise.

Be patient. Habits can be hard to break, and pressure from you won't help.

As for the bitter drops you can buy at drugstores to prevent nibbling, they work best if your child's really motivated to stop.