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Written by Caroline Meyer

Bad habits effect all of us and habits developed in the early years of life can carry over into later years and may become more difficult to prevent.  Children will pick up habits from people around them, including siblings, parents and other children. It is important to curb your own bad habits when trying to instil good habits in children as well. 


When people repeat the same behaviours over and over, even unconsciously, this is referred to as a habit. Habits can be caused by psychological or physical problems as well. Bad habits can also lead to obsessive behaviours which would require treatment from a trained professional. 

There may be many things your child does that you find annoying, and while most of these are usually the normal behaviour of a child, there are some unwanted behaviours that you might want to nip in the bud. It is important that you understand why your child is exhibiting these behaviours. Bad habits are often a coping strategy to deal with boredom, frustration, stress, insecurity, unhappiness or fatigue. Many of the more common bad habits are mechanisms for the child to self-soothe. 

Most behaviours are outgrown and are not serious medical conditions requiring treatment. In general, it is recommended that most bad habits just be ignored. Punishments, yelling or constant attention been given due to the habit usually does not stop the habit and can often lead to an increase in the unwanted behaviour. Positive reinforcement such as praise when they are not exhibiting the behaviour has a greater measure of success. This means that you need to display enormous amounts of tolerance and patience, but it can help reduce the bad habits over time. 


Most little ones outgrow the need for constant sucking by the time they are a year old. Before this age, they will often such on thumbs, fingers, dummy and even on their toys and blankets. The sucking helps soothe and calm little ones and can help them sleep. Some children will continue to soothe themselves after the age of a year but it only really becomes a problem when the child reaches the age of around 5. This is when the permanent teeth start coming in and the sucking can result in changes in the palate, or make the teeth grow in incorrectly. If you child sucks on fingers or thumbs, it is better to substitute a dummy instead but try and get rid of all dummies by the age of 4. An idea to make the dummies less appealing is to cut slits in the sides and make them less interesting to suck on. You can try stopping gradually by limiting the dummy to bed times only before removing them all together.  


Some children will bang their heads again and again against a solid object such as the wall or their cots. This can become quite severe and care givers may have concerns that the behaviour may result in injury. The child usually doesn’t appear to be experiencing pain but seems quite calm while doing this. This habit usually starts at around 9 months but is resolved by the time a child turns two. If there are actual concerns or risk of injury, consult a professional. Head rolling is when an infant rolls their head constantly from side to side while lying flat on their backs. This can result with all the hair on the back of the head being rubbed off over time. When a child sits or rests on their knees and elbows and rocks rhythmically back and forth, this is known as body rocking. Some infants may start body rocking around 6 months, but have usually stopped by the time they turn 2. Head banging and body rocking often occurs while listening to music or attempting to fall asleep.  These are all self-comforting habits and are generally harmless. If your child has developmental delays or there is risk of injury from the behaviours, discuss your concerns with your doctor. 


More than 50% of infants exhibit clenching or grinding of teeth. This can start from 6 months when the teeth first start coming in and reoccur from the age of 5 when the permanent teeth start growing in. Bruxism usually happens during sleep and while most kids do outgrow the habit, some carry it in to adulthood. Once the adult teeth have grown in, this habit can cause lower jaw problems as well as dental issues. If your child is still grinding teeth once the adult teeth start growing in, you may want to consult your dentist for option to limit damage. 


While nail biting and cuticle nibbling or picking can be annoying and result in ugly looking fingertips, it only becomes a health concern when there is recurrent bleeding and even infection in the fingertips and nail beds. Negative reactions are generally not effective with this habit and positive reactions to making using of their fingers in positive ways work better. Do tasks such as paper folding and finger painting to indicate positive use of the fingers instead of yelling every time the fingers go in to the mouth.  Other remedies include nail polishes to curb nail biting and even adding vinegar to plasters taped over the nail beds. 


This is a common habit amongst children and even some adults. This is one of those habits that is not socially acceptable and is one of the habits most adults want to stop as soon as possible. While it generally does not cause physical harm, nose picking can result in minor trauma and even infection inside the nose. Nose picking usually starts due to allergies or infections and even minor injury to the nose. The nose picking can result in even more irritation, leading to more nose picking in a vicious cycle. Nose picking can also cause nose bleeds. If your child is old enough, you can explain that nose picking is not okay to do in public. They can use a tissue to clean their nose, blow or wipe away the itching or irritating mucus. They also need to be aware that picking their nose can result in passing along infection to others through the mucus. Make sure they wash their hands if you find them nose picking and also after blowing their noses. If there is a physical cause for the nose irritation and picking, try and get that attended to as soon as possible. A saline spray before bed can help keep the noise moist and prevent irritation, while a light layer of petroleum jelly in the nose a few times a day can also reduce irritation and subsequent picking. 


If your child is losing hair, it may be as a result of disease or infection, so do not automatically put it down to habits such as hair twirling or pulling. If the pulling and twirling is mild and doesn’t result in injury or hair loss, it is usually just a self-soothing behaviour which tends to go away as they get older. It is commonly seen when children are bored, tired or even just relaxed. If the behaviour becomes severe and they start pulling out hair from their eyebrows, lashes, scalp and even pubis, this could be a disorder known as trichotillomania. It is recommended that you visit your doctor should this be the case. 


By the time they reach the age of 5 to 6, most children will regularly play with their private parts and some even long before this age. This is generally not sexual behaviour at this age and is a normal part of their development. Should the masturbation be a problem or you are concerned, you should discuss this with your paediatrician.   


While this is also a fairly common habit, it can be quite scary for a parent when their child suddenly holds their breath for a period of time. This can happen as a result of a frightening, upsetting or painful experience. The child may even hold their breath until they actually lose consciousness. With some children, the breath holding can be accompanies by seizure-like behaviour. These episodes can last for a few seconds to up to a minute. This habit can develop around 18 to 24 months but has usually topped by the time the child turns five. Breath holding is involuntary and the child cannot prevent them. Just keep the child calm and protect them from hurting themselves during the episode. There are generally no long terms effects from the breath holding spells.  

Most behaviours are temporary and the child will outgrow them eventually. Try and avoid giving negative attention or otherwise focussing on the habits as this may only encourage the negative behaviours. Ignore the behaviours or praise positive behaviours instead. For most kids, when they find alternative behaviours that offer more or better benefits, they will stop the bad behaviours on their own. If you do attempt to prevent negative behaviour, start with only 1 habit at a time, preferably those that can result in harm to the child if continued or exacerbated. If you can figure what is causing the behaviour, you also have a better chance at curbing it. Where possible, talk to your child and try and find out what is stressing them out. Let them make decisions for themselves where possible, reducing frustration and anxiety. Help them find better ways of dealing with the issues causing them to resort to the negative behaviours.  Finding alternatives may go a long way to curbing the bad habits in your children. 

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