Ask the Readers: Clipping Kids’ Nails

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Categories Ask the Readers, Fear, Parenting
Photo Credit: Jesse Draper
Photo Credit: Jesse Draper

Could there be anything more mundane or boring than the cutting of nails? Diapers and feeding are topics that put us parents in our element, but nails? This is a subject that never comes up. This is also happens to be an area that I still don’t feel like I’ve mastered 7+ years into this mommy gig.

When my daughters, M and J, were newborns, their nails grew so fast that I could almost see them lengthening during our long breastfeeding sessions. I clipped those 40 tiny nails every day. Only once did I hurt a baby cutting nails, and I cried longer than she did. I caught M’s big toenail a little too close to the quick. I still cringe to think of it.

My father-in-law suggested to me that I just bite the girls nails off when they were infants. Thanks, but … eww! Instead, I used the gift my always wonderful boss gave me at our baby shower at work. I think it was Parents brand, but the Safety 1st one the picture is a decent stand-in.

I’d just grab those teeny tiny fragile hands and feet in my big clumsy hand, slide the bottom blade between skin and nail, wince, and squeeze. Times 40. Every day.

Now that they’re 7, we can get away with tending to J and M’s nails every week or so. I no longer use the baby clippers, only because they got lost in the move to El Paso two years ago. The fingernail cutting is pretty unremarkable. I ask the child in question to please sit still, I grab her hand and try to steady the finger, I remind her to sit still, I remind her that the clippers are sharp and I really need her to sit still, I give up on her sitting still, and I aim and squeeze. I trim whatever’s left and move onto the next finger.

Once we’re done with the fingers, things get difficult. My toenails grow straight out, so they’re easy to trim. The girls inherited their father’s curved nails. He pointed out to me when they were a couple of months old that they would, like him, be prone to ingrown nails, something I never contended with. I’m glad to report that it has yet to come to that.

J isn’t too thrilled about having her toenails trimmed, but she puts up with it. M, on the other hand, goes into a deep panic. There’s crying and begging and even once she’s agreed to the torture, her toes curl up and she shakes and jerks and entreats me not to cut her toes off. The child doesn’t like anyone near her feet. When we got to the nail salon together, J and I get mani-pedis and M gets a manicure. She likes to soak her feet with her sister, but insists on drying them herself when she’s done. She’ll occasionally ask me to paint her toenails, but it’s a (I just can’t help myself) nail-biting experience. (Ba dum ching.)

Yesterday, it was nail-clipping time. The fingers went as the fingers go. J needed to go potty, so M’s toes were up next. I asked if I could see her toes, and about 5 minutes of bargaining later, she acquiesced. We were seriously overdue for some trimming. I picked up her foot, and she got cold feet (am I on a roll or what?). “I can’t do this, Mommy. I just can’t handle this.”

I tried to reason with her and finally offered an alternative. “You’re a big girl. How about you clip your own toes?” Why hadn’t I considered that before? She agreed to try. She still cried, curled and twitched, but at least she wasn’t trying to buy her way out by offering to fold the next decade worth of laundry. One snip in, she decided she couldn’t do it. So I did what I always end up doing. I clamped down on her foot with an iron grip, did my best to not hear the screaming, and clipped as fast as I could without drawing blood.

When we were done, my tear-soaked M had an idea. “Maybe you should just do this when I’m asleep, Mommy.” The child sleeps in a lofted bed 5 feet off the ground.

We’ve tried nail files. M hates them worse than the clipper because they take longer and contact more of her skin. We’ve tried nail scissors. You’d think I’d suggested a light afternoon of waterboarding. I’ve tried surprise attacks, planned sessions, ice cream bribery, movie watching, snuggles, board games. It’s not getting any better.

Help me out, people. Surely M’s not the only one with this level of fear of having her nails clipped.

How do I make the cutting of nails, especially M’s toes, less torturous for everyone? We have dogs for miles around who being deafened by the shrieks.

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012 and is usually better able to keep her love of puns out of her writing. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and was delighted to have the opportunity to keep a foot in the blogosphere through HDYDI. She also blogs at and Multicultural Mothering.

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Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 10-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. They live in the Austin, TX suburbs, where Sadia works full time in information technology. She contributes to a number of parenting websites and magazines and also runs The Mommy Blogging Guide, where she answers mommy bloggers' technical questions.

8 thoughts on “Ask the Readers: Clipping Kids’ Nails”

  1. I remember you writing a couple of years ago about one of the girls’ toenails (I think?) flipping up and lodging just below your eyelid. I always think about that when I cut my girls’ nails, especially when I’m not wearing my glasses. It’s a real threat!

    Would it help to cut the girls’ nails after bath time? That way they’d be softer and maybe a little easier to do? And I do think it makes sense to continue to encourage M to try to cut her own nails at some point…to put her in control may eventually help her work through the issue.

    I hope you nail down a solution soon! (OK…the best I could retort pre-coffee!)

    1. Excellent comeback!

      I used to try to clip the girls’ nails after bathtime, but we’ve been in such a rush of late that I’ve been minimizing bath-related activity. We just had a family meeting and decided to prioritize bedtime, so perhaps nail clipping can fall under that umbrella. I’ll let you know.

      (And that time the nail clipping landed in my eye? I was wearing glasses. *shudder*)

  2. Ha. This is a topic indeed that people don’t talk enough about, because seriously, I know a lot of parents, myself included, that HATE clipping nails! I mean you would think it was the end of the world in this house! BUT, things have gotten much better in the last 5ish months (so about when they turned 3) with nail clipping. We’ve talked about how it doesn’t hurt, and I’ve bribed my girls often with nail polish but only after I clip their nails. That works surprisingly well most of the time!

  3. I am so weird because I love clipping my boys’ nails, and I used to do my brother and sisters’ too. My sister hated it, she would cry and tell me it hurt. Mean big sis that I am, I told her it didn’t hurt, that she should just yell “This feels weird!” It kind of worked. She would also bite on a stuffed animal. As for my kids, I sort of wrestle them down (so easy when they would fall asleep nursing! I got it all done then) and occasionally, when I’m desperate, I let them watch TV while I finish (ugh I’m cringing). I agree that after a bath and doing it herself are probably the best long-term solutions.

  4. I’ve done my now almost 5 y/o boys’ nails while they’re watching TV since they were much smaller. They don’t watch much, so when they do it captivates them enough to get them to sit still for a few min.
    However, one of my guys has sensory issues and in the past couple of years has gotten increasingly more difficult, i.e. constantly pulling away, fighting, etc. I have read that if you squeeze the tips of their fingers/toes for a few seconds right before you clip them, it desensitizes them. (It doesn’t seem to work for my guy though!)
    Something else to try might be to have her sing a favorite song while you’re doing it to distract her. You could have her sing really loud or fast or whatever she likes, and you and/or her sister sing with her. Good luck!

    1. Kate, thanks so much for the advice. M’s very cerebral, so I wonder if she wouldn’t even benefit from reading something about the squeezing/desensitization. The singing may very well work, if I could just approach the whole thing in a way that didn’t immediately erupt in crying. Maybe a 24-hour warning: “Tomorrow, after bath we’ll cut your nails.” Then get her to sing at the time. I’ll try this week and let you know how it goes.

  5. I clipped my boys nails when they were babies (with the Safety first clippers) but after nicking one of their fingers, I was nervous forevermore. I started biting off their finger nails until they were about one. It worked great, was easy, and I never hurt them. Call me old, but that is what our parents did and it was fool proof. Now I cut them when they let me!

  6. This may sound crazy, but they have these dremel attachments for doing the nails of dogs which we had to use for a rescue who hated having his feet handled. A couple of years ago I saw thatthey had made a similar tool for people (not a dremel attachment but some kind of standalone spinning file). Maybe there’s a tool she’ll tolerate. On a related note, I wouldn’tlet my mom anywhere near me with the kind of clippers you pictured. They terrified me. I insisted on nail scissors.

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