How to Gently Trim Your Toddler's Nails

Welcome to the April 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Kids and Personal Care

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories, tips, and struggles relating to their children’s personal care choices.

Pretty scary from up close

Little Man hates having his nails clipped and hair cut. The nail clipping has been a source of anxiety from the time he was born and it has become worse for him and me as he has gotten older. I trimmed his nails regularly because he is a twiddler during breastfeeding and it was uncomfortable for me when he had nails. We have never once cut them too close to the quick or damaged his skin but he fears the nail clippers. At his two year appointment I asked his doctor about his dislike of nail clipping and she immediately suggested he needed to see a child psychologist. I felt this was over-reacting a bit on her part and exactly how much was he going to communicate to a stranger that he was not already communicating to me so instead I asked my friends for advice and suggestions.

We chose our nail clippers for their safety features like the wide handle, thumb grip and magnifying lens.

The suggestions they gave me were wonderful and supportive and we tried every single one of them. The first suggestion was to change the vocabulary we used when referring to the activity – instead of nail cutting try trimming. There is an association with cutting that it hurts – which is what he would say when we would trim his nails or our own. Even if we insisted that it did not hurt – he did not believe us because we said the word “cut”. It is very helpful to be mindful of the vocabulary you use with young children. In the English language many words have more then one meaning but young children often have difficulty distinguishing these meanings from one another.

The next suggestion was to trim our nails in front of him. We were already doing this and he was getting upset when we did this. We felt that the benefits of this outweighed his anxiety because he was not being physically harmed by this and we as adults could use language to describe the process and assure him we were not being hurt by this. We also decided to stop trimming one of our dogs nails in front of him because she has very strong reactions to nail trims and he was probably picking up on her anxiety over this. Children are very perceptive to unspoken reactions, feelings and fears so it is important to recognize these in yourself and others and do what you can to limit the exposure to the negative stimulus.

Two other suggestions were to allow him to handle the nail clippers outside of the nail trimming events so that he could familiarize himself with them to become comfortable with them and to allow him to “help” cut his nails. We left the nail trimmers on the table whenever we were with him and allowed him to pick them up and explore them whenever he was comfortable. We would only talk about the item if he showed an interest in it and would not force the interaction on him. For the second suggestion we purchased a second set of clippers and allowed him to “trim” our nails and his own. He does not actually cut our nails but the act of putting the clippers to his nails and ours can help disassociate the hurting.

Trimming nails during a nap on the couch

All of the above suggestions are not immediate fixes though. They are techniques that will take time and need to be practiced regularly. So back to my original need to trim his nails quite often – the twiddling. He weaned himself at 20 months but continues to twiddle and smooth my skin when he is stressed, bored, or tired – so mama needs short nails so I’m not getting the hebee-jebees when he does this. So my quick fix resolution has been to trim his nails in his sleep.

Blissfully unaware of the nail trimming session

He is a pretty heavy sleeper in that if he falls asleep I can put him in a sling and carry him up and then transfer him to his bed to continue his nap. If he falls asleep with me on the couch before bed – I can carry him into his room, change his diaper and redress him in pajamas and make the bed transfer without waking him as well. So I decided that this time would also be good to trim his nails so that my confidence would be rebuilt and he would not experience the stress that he was during nail trimming.

So now that you have seen how we are working with Little Man to become more comfortable with nail trimming and how in the meantime I manage to keep his anxieties and my needs balanced – how do you trim your child’s nails? Do you have any suggestions for us that we haven’t tried already?


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be live and updated by afternoon April 10 with all the carnival links.)

  • Holistic Care of your Toddler’s Teeth — Erica at ChildOrganics tells a tale of her children’s teeth issues and how she uses homeopathy and good nutrition to keep cavities at bay.
  • Bath Time Bliss : Fuss-Free Bath Time for Toddlers — Christine at African Babies Don’t Cry shares how she has made bath time completely fuss free for both her and her toddler.
  • Homemade Natural ToothpasteCity Kids Homeschooling hosts a guest post on a homemade natural toothpaste recipe that kids will love!
  • Bathing Strike StrategiesCrunchy Con Mommy offers her best tips for keeping your little ones clean when they refuse to bathe.
  • Bodily Autonomy and Personal Hygeine — Mandy at Living Peacefully with Children discusses the importance of supporting a child’s bodily autonomy in the prevention of abuse.
  • A Tub Full of Kiddos! — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment has kiddos who love the water, so bathtime is a favorite evening activity!
  • The Trials of Tidying My Toddler — Adrienne at Mommying My Way shares the difficulties she has with getting her on-the-go son to be still enough to get clean.
  • Wiped Clean — Laura at Pug in the Kitchen shares her recipe for homemade diaper wipe solution to clean those sweet little cloth diapered bottoms in her home!
  • Snug in a Towel: Embracing Personal Grooming — Personal care is time consuming,especially with more than one child; but the mama at Our Muddy Boots is learning to embrace this fleeting and needful time.
  • EC: All or Nothing? — Elimination Communication. Even the title sounds complicated and time consuming. It doesn’t have to, if you adapt it to meet your family’s needs, says Jennifer at True Confessions of a Real Mommy.
  • Routine Battles — In a guest post at Anktangle, Jorje of Momma Jorje outlines a simple incentive to help inspire your little one to follow a routine.
  • Redefining Beauty For My Daughter — Justine at The Lone Home Ranger relays her struggle to define her own femininity and how her preschooler unexpectedly taught her a lesson in true beauty.
  • Rub-A-Dub-Dub, Three Girls In The Tub — Chrystal at Happy Mothering shares how she turns bath time into a few minutes of peace and quiet.
  • Montessori-Inspired Activities for Care of Self — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now has a roundup of Montessori-inspired activities for care of self and ideas for home environments that encourage independence.
  • 10 Gentle Tips for Little Ones Who Hate the Bath — Kim at life-is-learning gives 10 tips to get your little one into the bath and maybe even enjoying it.
  • The Boy With The Long Hair — Liam at In The Now discusses his son’s grooming choices.
  • Personal Care in a Montessori Home — Melissa at Vibrant Wanderings shares a summary of the ways she has organized her family’s home to make for easy, Montessori-inspired toddler personal care.
  • Styling Kids — Kellie at Our Mindful Life is letting her kids decide what to look like.
  • Clean Kids: Laundry and Bath Tips — Kimberly at Homeschooling in Nova Scotia shares tips on how to get your children helping with laundry plus recipes for laundry and liquid soap.
  • How to Clean Your Children Naturally: A Tutorial — Erika at Cinco de Mommy shows you how to clean your children.
  • Cleaniliness is next to… dirt — The lapse-prone eco-mom (Kenna at Million Tiny Things) sometimes forgets to bathe the kids. Except in the mud pit.
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21 Responses to How to Gently Trim Your Toddler's Nails

  1. Thanks for this advice! Baby hasn’t allowed me to cut his nails in way too long. I’ve been able to sneak a couple of clips here and there when he sleeps, but they are few and far between because he wakes up and cries no matter how deep of a sleep he appears to be in. I’m going to try your suggestions.

  2. Wow – I LOL’d at the seeing a psychologist comment. Seriously?! Kieran always finds it amusing when I act goofy about where the nail trimmings are going. I’ll squeal in horror if they get on me, or we’ll see how far they can fly. Alternatively, he’ll try to catch them. Trimming nails outside is also a good time.

  3. Mudpiemama says:

    Great suggestions, letting an anxious child become familiar with the clippers in a non clipping situation is a great way to go! My three do not mind “clipping time” they get to decided which foot or hand is going first and we always sing the same song “animal fair” so they know when it will be over. My oldest like it when we count the clips, clip one, clip two, clip three and so on… I am amazed at your description of the deep sleep, wow!

  4. Sheila says:

    Until my son was a year old, I hardly ever used clippers on him. Instead I (don’t judge!) *bit* his nails. It was just much easier for me to be sure I didn’t hurt him that way. I’d just do them while he was nursing, a couple at a time, whenever I noticed them. That never bothered him at all — sometimes he giggled.

    When he got older, he started to get upset and jealous when we would cut our nails, and demand we do his, too. So I do, but he sometimes starts resisting partway through, or demanding I only do one nail (which has already been done) and not the others. What helped was having our special nail clipping song (Where Is Thumbkin). There’s a verse for each finger while I clip it. He usually is pretty cooperative while I do that.

  5. You’ve just given me an “aha” moment that I need to stop calling it hair cutting. Every time I tell Mikko it’s time to cut his hair, he says something about how it will hurt. I know I haven’t nicked his ears or anything, so now I’m wondering if the word I’m using is contributing to that association. So I know this comment isn’t helpful to you, lol, but thank you!

  6. Amy says:

    Lovely suggestions, Shannon, and Dionna. 🙂

    I agree with the sentiment that some children pick up on anxiety or resistance of others and working through our own stuff will help to make it “no big deal”, just another thing we do to take care of our bodies, another self-care task for our kiddos to learn.

    I felt pretty anxious with the first couple of kids and have become more comfortable with nail trimming. Definitely find that allowing it to be a fun, silly, or otherwise non-stressful event helps. Sometimes we can be so determined as parents to just get something done that we lose sight of the ultimate goal – to get it done while enjoying our kids. I suppose maybe that’s not everyone’s goal, but I imagine most of us would prefer that whenever possible. Thankfully, we get to choose.

    We’ve definitely used nap times in the past to do nails. If it works, it works. 🙂

  7. Lyndsay says:

    great post! sharing this on our facebook page! So many parents ask about this issue! Love it.

  8. Shannon says:

    Thanks for the suggestions! I will be mindful with the vocabulary I use surrounding nail trimming from now on. BabyE is a very light sleeper, so I haven’t been able to get away with trimming while he’s asleep in quite awhile. Luckily he doesn’t have any fear. It is just so hard to get him to hold still long enough to finish the task. Sometimes I just try to relax and accept that sometimes I am only going to get 2 or 3 fingers done at a time.

  9. This is a really good post with a lot of tips. I took me two years to master the art of nail trimming and I still blame myself for my daughter’s three goofed up nails! It is hard to trim nails on a wiggly toddler!

  10. Gretchen says:

    Some days, Jemma is totally game for her “beauty routine” like getting nails trimmed. Other days, not so much. Right now, distraction is my best friend and I ask her if I can trim her nails while she watches a TV show – she plops her hand on my lap and we’re good to go.

  11. jaqbuncad says:

    We’ve done a number of things with our kids, including trimming their nails while they sleep. It’s not that they get anxious, but rather, that it involves being still for a set period of time – they’re both a bit prone to fidgeting. Libra, our eldest, will now sit for a nail trimming because we paint his nails afterward. Gemini, our youngest, still needs some convincing, so instead of trying to do all his nails at once I usually just trim them on an as-needed basis, one or two nails at a time.

  12. I also ‘nipped’ my babies nails to trim them for the 1st year. At first I didn’t want to but her fingers were so tiny, the clippers where so scary to use, and my mum said that was what they did when we were little (but the nurses said it was germy and to be totally avoided). Then I used a nail scissor to trim her nails when she slept and this worked fine. Now I can trim them with scissors during the day and this is easiest when someone else engages her attention. For me I feel that I have greater control using scissors then clippers. But I have never seen clippers with magnifying lense – that is fantastic!

  13. Ooo nail trimming is tricky in our household, too! My helpful tool are the videos on my iPhone: I press play, and Pip’s completely distracted while I quickly cut her nails! We rarely watch the videos, and they are of her and family members, so it holds her attention very well (for now)!

  14. It seems my former comment didn’t survive my lousy internet connection. But… what a great idea to have a magnifying glass on the clippers! I was always worried about using clippers because I couldn’t clearly see what I was doing. Similar to Carrie, I like to have someone distract my little one for long enough to trim the nails. 🙂

  15. Hi all sorry I got distracted with newborn duties and wasn’t able to approve or reply to comments in a timely fashion – hope everyone understands. I love the suggestions that some of you offered. I am going to try the iPhone trick and hope that helps with distraction. Might not work for Little Man though since he already likes to scroll through the phone and play with the apps so that may make access to his fingers a little difficult but it is something to try.

  16. Kat says:

    fab article, thanks! we do ‘mr. nail clipper is coming to visit’ put on a silly voice and talk about nonsense – works sometimes 😉

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  21. Delia says:

    I resorted to bribery! I use an all natural, vegetarian gummy bunny “snack” (that’s what they call it but really it is a candy) Annies I think is the brand. I started this maybe a 1 1/2 years ago and he is almost 3 1/2 now. This keeps my son still and preoccupied so I can get through it. This is the only time he is allowed to have them and we don’t give him any other candy on a regular basis anyway so he knows this is what they are for. It’s cute when I clip my own nails, he says I need some chewy bunnies. I tried other ideas but my eyesight is not good even with glasses on (but tons better than my husband’s eyesight) and I need a bright light so I can’t do it when he’s sleeping as I need a bright light which would wake him up. I used to have my husband hold him still and that was stressful for everyone and didn’t work well because he squirmed. No squirming when he gets his treat. Works like a charm.

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