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Lots of children have habits, like nail-biting and thumb-sucking. The good news is that most habits go away by themselves. But if you need to help your child break a habit, here are some practical steps to take.
Young boy pulling a face

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • Up to half of children under the age of four years suck a finger or thumb.
  • A quarter of six-year-olds bite their nails.
 

What are habits?

A habit is a pattern of behaviour that happens regularly until your child does it almost without thinking. If children repeat an action, like pulling at their hair over and over, it’s a habit.

Often our children’s habits might bother or frustrate us, but usually it’s nothing to worry about.

Children’s habits usually involve touching or fiddling with some part of their face or body. Sometimes children are aware of their habits, and sometimes not.

Some common habits in children are:

  • sucking a finger, thumb or dummy
  • biting nails or picking at the cuticle
  • twirling and pulling hair
  • picking their nose or sores
  • picking at lips or the insides of their cheeks
  • chewing objects such as pencils and clothing
  • grinding teeth.

Why do habits start?

Habits can be comforting for kids. Sucking is a good example. As toddlers leave behind their baby stage, habits like thumb-sucking can be a way of soothing stress or anxiety.

But anxiety isn’t always the reason for children’s habits. Sometimes habits are brought on by boredom. That is, the behaviour is just how children entertain themselves. For example, one study of young nail-biters found that nail-biting was more common when children were watching TV or doing nothing than when they were feeling anxious. 

Sometimes habits are behaviour that starts for practical reasons but keeps going when the practical reason has gone. For example, young children with colds often pick their noses to clear them. Children who keep picking even after they’ve learned to blow their noses probably have a habit.

You’re a role model for your child. If you see your child starting a habit, perhaps ask yourself whether it’s one of your own habits. For example, some studies have suggested nail-biting can be passed on within a family. 

Note: some toddlers seem to get comfort from some common but slightly unusual behaviour, including body-rocking, head-rolling and head-banging. These habits usually disappear by the age of 18 months.

Be aware of behaviour that looks like a habit but might have a medical cause. For example, actions that come on suddenly – such as pulling or hitting an ear – and that are combined with irritability can indicate an ear infection or teething.

Breaking habits

Most habits go away by themselves. But if your child’s habit is getting in the way of everyday activities, has become embarrassing, or is even causing some harm, you might want to take action.

Take finger-sucking. Sucking the thumb or fingers is normal and common. But your child might be sucking fingers all the time. If this is getting in the way of talking or eating, or your child is being teased by peers because of it, it could be time to break the habit.

Some tips for breaking habits

  • A gentle reminder can be enough. For example, if your child sucks on a sleeve, you can say, ‘Please don’t chew on your sleeve – it’s a bit yucky’.
  • Sometimes, focusing on a habit or drawing attention to it might make it worse. It all depends on how your child feels about (and reacts to) the attention.
  • Try to encourage your child to do something else during idle times. For example, you could encourage your child to play with a toy that has moveable parts while watching television. Maybe try a hand game, like ‘Incy Wincy Spider’.
  • Try to find out why your child is doing the habit, and suggest an alternative. For example, if your child wriggles around when a wee or poo is coming instead of just going to the toilet, you could say, ‘Do you need to go to the toilet? Use your words and tell me’.
  • Habits can come in pairs, such as sucking a thumb and pulling hair. When you stop the thumb-sucking, the hair-pulling might also stop.
Praise will go a long way towards stopping habits. For example, you can say, ‘That’s great, I can really hear your words clearly when your fingers aren’t in your mouth’.

When to get help for habits

At about three years of age, thumb-sucking and finger-sucking can become a problem for children’s teeth development. If your child is still finger-sucking beyond three, talk to your pharmacist about using other approaches, such as a sticking plaster or a paint-on solution. The solution makes the fingers taste yucky.

If you’re concerned that your child’s sucking is causing problems, you could see your dentist about using a palate barrier. This device makes it uncomfortable for children to suck thumbs or fingers.

If you think anxiety might be the reason behind a habit, you might need to deal with the cause of the anxiety. Talk to your doctor for a referral to a health professional. For example, a psychologist can teach your child some simple steps to stop the habit.

Other facts about habits

Habits in children with disability
Children with disability might have more habits, or habits that are more pronounced. A psychologist or other specialist experienced with disability can help if you’re looking for more information.

Habit or tic?
Tics are not habits. Tics are muscle spasms that cause jerky movements that seem out of the child’s control. Examples include repeated blinking, face twitches and arm or shoulder jerks.

Sometimes tics are caused by health problems such as Tourette syndrome or by stress.

A child might be able to stop a tic for a short time, but it will come back when the child stops thinking about it. If you feel a tic is distressing for your child, it’s best to seek help from a health care professional. Your GP is always a good place to start.

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  • Last Updated 01-12-2009
  • Last Reviewed 14-05-2014
  • Bishara, S., Warren, J., Broffit, B., & Levy, S. (2006). Changes in the prevalence of nonnutritive sucking patterns in the first 8 years of life. American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics, 130(1), 31-35.

    Christophersen, E., & Mortweet, S. (2001). Treatments that work with children: Empirically supported strategies for managing childhood problems. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    Foster, L. (1998). Nervous habits and stereotyped behaviors in preschool children. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 37(7), 711-717.

    Knight, M., & McKenzie, H. ((1974). Elimination of bedtime thumbsucking in home settings through contingent reading. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 7, 33-38.

    Snider, L., Seligman, B., Ketchen, S., Levitt, L., Bates, L., Garvey, M., & Swedo, S. (2002). Tics and problem behaviors in schoolchildren: Prevalence, characterizations and associations. Pediatrics, 110, 331-336. 

    Stricker, J., Miltenberger, R., Anderson, C., Tulloch, H., & Deaver, C. (2002). A functional analysis of finger sucking in children. Behavior Modification, 26(3), 424-443.

    Vogel, L. (1998). When children put their fingers in their mouths: Should parents and dentists care? New York State Dental Journal, 64(2), 48-53.

    Woods D., Fuqua, W., Siah, A., Welch, M., Blackman, E., & Sief, T. (2001). Understanding habits: A preliminary investigation of nail biting function in children. Education and Treatment of Children, 24(2), 199-216.