A child’s first smile, crawl or step fills your heart with love and pride.
But what about less endearing habits, such as bedwetting, nose-picking, nail-biting, thumb-sucking or baby talk? Then what?
“Remind yourself the majority of these are annoying, not harmful,” says Dr. Mary Schlichtemeier, Pediatrician at Blue Fish Pediatrics Greater Heights. “Kids eventually move on, so patience is key.”
Here are tips to speed that process, from Dr. Schlichtemeier and pediatric urologist Dr. Jason Au, who show how to handle five common habits:
The Trait: Bedwetting
Why They Do It: As their bodies mature, kids are more able to master bedwetting. “Urinating is a complex process,” says Dr. Au, pediatric urologist at The Vanguard Urologic Institute at Memorial Hermann Medical Group in Medical Center and Memorial City. Pelvic nerves send sensory signals to the brain to alert us to a full bladder, but that circuit that takes time to form. “Calling this a habit is a misnomer. It implies you can make small changes to fix it. Bedwetting is very difficult to change.”
The good news is that 15% of bedwetters per year will stop with no medical interventions, Dr. Au says. “Chances are, if you wait long enough, your child will stop altogether.”
Normal Expiration Date: Age 5-6. By age 5, 80% of kids are potty-trained enough to be dry at night.
How Long It May Go On: Only 5% of children wet their beds until age 10 or beyond. Obstructive sleep apnea also increases the likelihood of bedwetting. Children who’ve been dry may have accidents short-term due to stressful events such as bullying, divorce or natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey.
When It’s a Medical Issue: Occasional bedwetting may be due to constipation or a bladder infection, in which case the child may have pain while urinating or urinate more frequently. See a doctor, Dr. Schlichtemeier says. If the child is older than 5 and the parents are frustrated at the bedwetting it is ok to seek medical consultation.
Good Tactics: Cut off fluids two hours before bedtime and discourage any caffeinated beverages altogether at dinnertime. Encourage children to use the bathroom before sleeping. Also reward success with a sticker chart or other treat, Dr. Schlichtemeier says. Set a period after which the child may get a toy for making it through the night without bedwetting for a number of days.
Drastic Tactics: Bedwetting alarms are clipped to the underwear and when wetness is sensed, the alarm makes a loud sound or buzz. Over time, the child will sense when the bladder is full and wake up prior to wetting the bed. This is a type of behavior therapy. “The alarm has a long term success rate up to 75% if you commit as a family to use the alarm for six months,” says Dr. Au.
Doctors can prescribe Desmopressin as an adjunct medication, which concentrates the urine and can be taken safely long term even for years. Desmopressin provides excellent results in the short term such as for sleep overs or camps says Dr. Au. “Efficacy is between 80-90% initially, but stop the pill and wetting returns.”
Bad Tactics: Don’t yell at, blame or punish the bedwetter. “It’s not their fault,” Dr. Au says. In fact, more stress could make accidents more frequent.
The Trait: Nose Picking
Why They Do It: Children are bored and their hands are idle.
Normal Expiration Date: Ages 3-4 through early elementary school.
How Long It May Go On: Peer pressure discourages this behavior.
When It’s a Medical Issue: “This is neither medical nor harmful, just annoying,” Dr. Schlichtemeier says.
Good Tactics: Hand them a cup or toy to make their hands busy and their attention diverted.
Bad Tactics: Don’t yell or swat their hands, or they’ll double-down.
The Trait: Nail Biting
Why They Do It: Anxiety and boredom trigger this self-soothing action.
Normal Expiration Date: It starts in preschool, at age 3 or 4, and may not cease in those who are nervous.
How Long It May Go On: It continues into teen years and possibly into adulthood. “I’ve heard up to 60% of people bite their nails at one time or another,” Dr. Schlichtemeier says.
When It’s a Medical Issue: The child can get infections if skin is torn nearby. “Also, the more often hands are in a child’s mouth the more likely he or she will catch viruses and get sick.”
Good Tactics: Occupy your child’s hands with something else, reward them for ceasing the habit with stickers and ask your child if they’re willing to have a code word of their choice – like elephant – to alert them when they nail bite.
Drastic Tactics: You can paint a bad-tasting potion on nails, but it may not help.
Bad Tactics: Don’t nag, as it adds to angst.
The Trait: Baby Talk
Why They Do It: Young kids reverting to poor grammar, such as “Me want this,” do so from insecurity or attention-seeking, often during times of stress such as when a new sibling joins the family, Dr. Schlichtemeier says.
Normal Expiration Date: Ages 6-12.
How Long It May Go On: Not long – unless the behavior is rewarded.
Good Tactics: Encourage better grammar by making positive suggestions, such as “You know how to say this” or “How would a big kid, boy or girl say this? Tell me what you want,” Dr. Schlichtemeier says. Also be sure to give extra attention for good behaviors.
Bad Tactics: Don’t nag or give them extra attention for these behaviors, the latter of which encourages the child to continue.
The Trait: Thumb Sucking
Why They Do It: As with pacifiers, sucking a thumb or hand soothes anxiety and boredom, Dr. Schlichtemeier says.
Normal Expiration Date: This can start as early as infancy and usually children will stop around age 3 to 4.
How Long It May Go On: This too shall pass. Most children grow out of the habit on their own, often in preschool where they observe other children.
When It’s a Medical Issue: Once permanent teeth come in, sucking may affect their teeth and bite.
Good Tactics: Be patient and reward older children who stop thumb-sucking.
Drastic Tactics: You can paint bad-tasting ointment on their fingers, cover their hands with socks or have your dentist create a palatal devise that makes thumb-sucking unappealing.
Bad Tactics: Don’t nag. While pacifiers will pacify infants, the move fails in toddlers and beyond. The pacifier also can cause dental problems in older children so it should not be used to replace thumb sucking in older children. “They’ll suck on their hands as well.”