Truth: We've all picked our noses at some point in our lives! And yet, as adults, we've learned to use a tissue to remove what's bothering us in our nasal passages. But toddlers are still developing, of course, so when it comes to this less-than-appealing habit, it's natural for them to explore their bodies and investigate how they work — even the inside of the nose.[1]

As you ponder how to stop a toddler from picking his nose, know that this normal activity pops up along with other common kid habits like nail biting around age 2 to 3.[2] Here's more about why toddlers pick their nose, whether this practice is harmful and ways to get kids to stop picking, period.

Why children pick their noses

The reasons why your toddler or young child might be a nose picker are rather easy to grasp: He's bored, anxious, curious or just plain uncomfortable because he's stopped up. 

Soft and slimy (or hard and crusty) boogers form from mucus that lives naturally in the nose.[3] This mucus is designed to lubricate the sinuses and block germs from entering the lungs, but production can ramp up when your child is sick or has allergies. Dirt, dust and pollen that's trapped in the nose by tiny hairs called cilia also contribute to the formation of these brownish-yellow bits. 

Whether they have allergies or just a run-of-the-mill cold, toddlers and young kids often need help blowing their noses. Since they're still learning this skill, they may turn to picking their noses to remove pesky boogers rather than ask for your assistance with a tissue.

Kids with allergies tend to be the most dedicated pickers because mucus and crusting makes them feel like they constantly have something in there. They solve the problem the best way they know how: by using their fingers as tools. 

Nose picking is also a common way for tots to self-soothe and reduce stress, just like thumb sucking and hair twirling

Is nose picking really that bad?

If you're wondering how bad nose picking is for your little one, you can relax. There are some health concerns attached to nose picking, such as a risk of nosebleeds and the spread of germs, but the greater issue with this habit is the negative reaction your child will no doubt receive from those around him when he does it.

So, while picking one's nose is almost always a phase that kids outgrow, it's still worth it to try and curb this activity when you spot it. 

Your child might also decide to try (at least once) eating boogers. And while it may certainly gross you out, it's not a health issue because it's already happening in the body.[4] Mucus is made all the time, and much of it moves into the nasal cavity and throat and then continues to the stomach. Again, it's the social blowback you'll want to help your child avoid by teaching him to use a tissue.

How to stop nose picking in children

Your child will soon begin to care about what other people think, which means he'll stop picking his nose in public (sometime after the start of school, if not before). In the meantime, try the following:

  • Resist punishing. Never scold, swat his hand or tease your child because he's picking his nose. Instead, consistently request that he use a tissue. 
  • Play it cool. Don't draw too much attention to nose picking, which could encourage a tot to do it even more. 
  • Try to distract him. Give him something to hold onto, like a cup or toy, when you see him reaching for his nose. And consider activities that keep his hands busy like playing with finger puppets, scribbling on a notepad, coloring pictures or blowing bubbles.
  • Wash hands well. Keep good hygiene in mind when you spy nose picking, and have your child wash his hands to keep germs and possible sickness at bay.
  • Trim his nails. Short fingernails are better for a nose picker since longer ones may scratch the insides of the nasal passages, upping the risk of nosebleeds and infection.
  • Hone nose blowing skills. Take every nose-picking session you spot as an opportunity to grab a tissue and practice nose blowing. In time, your tot may actually blow his own nose rather than pick it. 
  • Explain the downside. If your child is picking so much that he's causing nosebleeds, explain that he's hurting his nose and should try to stop or tell you when he feels the need to pick.
  • Offer a reward. As with other toddler habits you want to curb, try to catch (and praise) your child when he's doing the right thing. Presenting him with a gold sticker or small toy after not picking for a while might also inspire him to ease up on this activity. 
  • Combat dryness. If hard boogers and dry nasal passages bother your little guy, try OTC options, such as saline drops, a thin layer of Vaseline or a humidifier to keep the air (and his nose) moist.
  • Head to the doctor. At the next visit, consider asking your child's doctor to offer the same "don't pick" talk that you've already given. It may have more of an impact coming from the pediatrician.
  • Ask about allergies. If an allergy (to dust, mold, pollen or something else) seems to be a contributing factor, talk to your child's doctor about ways to treat the underlying problem.
Strive not to worry too much about nose picking, if you can. This common childhood habit is one of several your tot may try on for size. But with little help from you, your tot will soon move past the nose-picking stage.