Melissa Newcomb describes it as the “snail trail.” Her son Harrison, 3, frequently picks his nose, then the curled digit trails down to his mouth and goes in—straight from one orifice to another.
“About a quarter of the day he’s got his finger in his nose,” says the mom of four from St. Stephen, NB. Harrison, a triplet, often doesn’t actually remove anything, but if he does he’ll sample the goods. Meanwhile, his brother Graeson prefers smearing his boogers on the wall to eating them. “That grosses me out more than the snail-trail issue,” Newcomb laments.
As revolting as it may be, nose-picking is exceedingly common among the toddler set. A young kid may be drawn to pick because he feels something in his nostril, he has an itch or they may simply be curious about what’s up there.
“Every kid does it,” says Mike Dickinson, chief of paediatrics at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. “They’re at an age where they may struggle to use a tissue and properly blow, so they’re going to do whatever they can to clear their nose—and that’s sticking a finger up there.” It’s a proactive approach, sure. But why do they have to eat it? “Young kids explore their environments using all their senses, so it’s common to put all sorts of interesting and unorthodox things in their mouths,” Dickinson explains.
While picking isn’t a dangerous habit, there is the risk of nosebleeds since the blood vessels are quite sensitive, says Dickinson. “Even light, superficial picking can cause bleeding,” he says. Kids who constantly scratch away at the skin in and around the nostrils also run the risk of a bacterial skin infection called impetigo. Impetigo is a yellow, crusty rash, and severe cases are treated with antibiotics. Dickinson recommends applying Polysporin, or a similar ointment, while waiting to see your doctor.
Health concerns aside, the gross-out factor ranks pretty high for many parents. “I definitely find it kind of icky,” says Toronto mom Lindsay Robbins*, whose four-year-old son started picking at a year and a half and enjoys snacking on his finds. “It’s really hard to ignore.”
Robbins says she tries hard not to let her son know that she finds his penchant for picking rather, well, putrid. Instead, she has adopted a more rational approach.
“I explain that’s where a lot of your germs are and you don’t want to eat that. I just talk about what we need to do to stay healthy and keep others healthy,” she says.
Reasoning like this, and pointing out that picking is an impolite thing to do in public or in front of Grandma, can be helpful, says Patrick McGrath, a psychologist and professor at Dalhousie University and the IWK Health Centre in Halifax who researches child behaviour. It’s less productive, he says, to recoil in horror and nag them to stop every time you catch them digging for gold. “You may find it disgusting, but you have to get used to these things when you have a toddler,” says McGrath. “You’re not going to win by getting on their case for it.” Instead, he says, try redirecting your child’s attention. This can be as simple as offering a tissue—and teaching him how to use it.
This strategy worked well for Victoria mom Diana Studer, whose nose-picking son Chase is two years old. Every time she caught Chase with a finger up his nose, she would wipe it and offer him a tissue. Studer repeated the tissue intervention until Chase stopped. Now if his nose is bothering him, he simply points to it—the signal for Studer to fetch a tissue.
Grossed-out parents of little pickers should know that kids eventually outgrow the habit. “It’s a normal developmental phase,” says McGrath. “Very few 18-year-olds have their fingers in their noses all the time—at least not in public.”
Note: Sometimes kids pick their noses because an object (such as a pea or bead) may actually be stuck inside. If you suspect this is the case, McGrath advises seeing a doctor right away. “Don’t try to get it out yourself—you’ll push it in further,” he says.
* Name has been changed
A version of this article appeared in the March 2015 issue with the headline, “Little pickers,” p. 65.