• What are some of the common bad habits that children pick up, and could you share a bit more about these habits?
  • How do children usually pick it up, and what are common causes of these bad habits?
  • What are some consequences if bad habits in children are not corrected?
  • What can parents do to help their little ones break free from such bad habits?
  • When would you know that the child has managed to break the habit? Will they fall back into the same patterns?

Bad habits can be found in both children and adults. I'd prefer not to label them as 'bad' in early childhood as they are predominantly self-soothing and evolve from the primitive reflexes. It can be deemed 'bad' when they have come of age and they are unable to shake off the habit.

1. Thumb and fingernail sucking

Thumb and finger sucking is instinctive in almost every single baby. It is borne out of the rooting and sucking reflexes. The oral route is the infant’s avenue of soothing himself. Later, the mouth becomes his security and exploratory escapades of the world around him. Most babies eventually outgrow this phase although a few would continue. I normally would discourage thumb or finger sucking beyond five years for sevaral reasons:

As they grow and explore the world around them, they pick up viruses or bacteria or simply dirt, on their hands. These unwelcome microbes would be directly ingested along with the saliva when the child stuffs his little thumb or finger into his mouth, resulting in frequent infections.

Depending on the frequency, intensity, and duration of the sucking, the teeth can be pushed out of alignment, causing them to protrude and create an overbite.

The child may also have difficulty with the correct pronunciation of words.

In addition, the upper and lower jaws can become misaligned and the roof of the mouth might become malformed.

The digits involved often become chapped, callused or they develop fingernail infections.

2. Getting rid of thumb sucking

Children normally outgrow it when they reach four to five years of age. Any child who is younger than two can be left to enjoy his digits as the habit is a source of comfort and security to him. Beyond this age, if the child is noted to be developing an overbite or his upper incisors are beginning to protrude, then there is a greater urgency to wean the habit.

By preschool, peer pressure would normally be adequate to help them kick the habit. If all else fails, parents should take note of any emotional or even psychological stresses the child could be facing and address the issue before hoping to remove this self-soothing habit. In the case of the younger children with urgency to wean the habit, one can apply a distasteful liquid such as garlic or onion or ginger or even a mild chilli sauce to the digits.

This has fairly good result, unless the child loves chilli (as I sometimes encounter). The older child needs a different tactic. Admonishment usually drives a sense of guilt into the child and parents should always understand that some children want to give it up, but they don't know how to help themselves.

They should be encouraged and praised. Perhaps a wall chart and star stickers for their efforts would go a long way. Finally, when all else fails, the dentists can offer fixed or removable palatal bars which can stop the habit.

3. Fingernail biting

60% of children and 45% of teenagers have this habit. Occasionally, this habit carries over to adulthood. They often do that when they are stressed, bored, tired and even when they are thinking! Obviously, some never outgrow the habit!

The underside of the fingernails house the dirt and grime that they pick up in their day to day activities such as from the playground, from the classroom, from that little friend's snort etc. This habit, like sucking the thumb, is accompanied by frequent throat or gastroenteritis. Moreover, the fingernails are often ugly, chapped and sometimes infected too.

Kicking the habit can be difficult and needs a lot of encouragement. Most children find it difficult to simply stop and therefore, parents need patience to deal with the problem. The older child may be more motivated once they see their nails becoming unhealthy or infected. A bitter tasting nail varnish or some very pretty plasters may discourage the habit.

Finally, a beautiful manicure for a young girl may make her think twice before sinking her teeth into those pink nails.

4. Hair twirling

Like all other habits, it is borne out of stress, anxiety, boredom and self-comforting. It is quite harmless and often resolves in childhood. Helping the child kick the habit requires patience and encouragement. Some experts recommend replacing the hair with a corner of a blanket but personally, it only encourages another habit.

Obviously underlying stresses have to be identified and resolved. I would suggest keeping the child's hands busy with something else. For example, if a toddler is holding a bottle in hand and twirling his hair with the other, then simply give him a toy or engage him in an action song where his free hand would be kept busy.

An older child may do well with a cap to remind him not to touch his hair excessively. Finally, you can put on mittens (not a glove) on the child, both on the young and older child. When they can't control their fingers to pick up the hair, they will give up.

5. Nose picking

It may be a sign of allergic rhinitis, a condition where the nose is always itchy or produces loads of mucous which get crusted up. The frequent picking can result in trauma and nose bleeding. Once this has been excluded, it boils down to the same old reasons as with all other habits.

Like hair twirling, the younger toddler can be distracted with finger games, blowing bubbles or scribbling or drawing. If the child is older and can be reasoned, the parent can explain that it is an ugly and unhealthy habit.

Often, an associated nose bleeding is enough to deter them. If all else fails, don't lose faith. His school friends will go to town condemning this disgusting habit and the peer pressure is enough to stop it, at least in public.