How do you cut a toddler's nails safely when she won't let you?
September 15, 2017 6:48 AM   Subscribe

Our precious kraken is a fourteen-month-old bundle of energy. How do I cut her nails when she won't stay still?

I used to cut her nails while nursing her or after she fell asleep but she's weaned and wakes up if I try to cut her nails now. She HATES it but it obviously needs to happen. She screams and writhes when I try to hold her hand still and I can't really get even one nail properly clipped either with mini clippers or nail scissors (I've tried both). My top priority is not hurting her. I would also, if possible, like to clip as many as possible at once and not, like, clip one nail at a time over the course of two weeks which will make me crazy. How do I do this?
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl to Pets & Animals (38 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Have you tried doing it while she's distracted by TV (or whatever screen she likes?) Not by surprise but as a bargaining chip. Like "I'll rent Frozen for you to watch if I can clip your nails real quick while you're watching." (Only works if screentime is generally limited of course.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:51 AM on September 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Elmo on the iPad. This also how we get him to sit on the toilet, sit still in a restaurant, and generally behave like a human being.
posted by whitewall at 6:56 AM on September 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Can you use one of those multi-sided foam nail files instead? It'd be hard to hurt her with it.
posted by rachaelfaith at 6:59 AM on September 15, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Nthing screentime.

The best setup for our 16 month old arm-waving galloper is to put him in his high chair, put the table on the high chair, put the high chair in front of the big TV, put on the Elmo on, waiting until he's properly enraptured, and doing his hands and feet in reverse order of how much he minds us handling them (feet first while half-hidding under the table for the high chair because he haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaates us touching them, then right hand because he doesn't like feeling as if we're keeping him from doing what he wants, then left hand, which he minds the least).
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:00 AM on September 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Is she into parental imitation yet? Can whichever parent she is most into initiate her into the fancy world of the manicure? It sounds counterintuitive but the world of washing, massaging, lotion, a pretend buff, and of course a trim can be very appealing to little folks, as opposed to the rush of "gimme your hand, I need to trim your nails."

I'm not saying you're rushing the job, but I'm saying on a toddler time scale nail clipping might feel like a hurricane.

It also sounds from your question like the kiddo doesn't sit still in general. You can investigate mediation for kids. Not having a kid I can't vouch for any of them.
posted by bilabial at 7:00 AM on September 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

I think I did this when my son was a little older than your daughter, but for a while he liked pretending to cut the nails of one of his stuffed animals while I did his. Eventually he became a little too competent with the clippers and I had to stop out of fear of him clipping one of his little fingers, but it helped for a while. I also noticed that as soon as he started squirming I would hold onto his hand/finger really firmly, which would make him squirm more - I can't imagine it felt good. Now I ask him as I'm doing it if I'm holding his hand too hard which seems to help him feel more in control.
posted by lomes at 7:06 AM on September 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Yep, screentime + husband helping hold her & her hand still. She still yells and doesn't like it, but she gets over it quickly.
posted by brainmouse at 7:22 AM on September 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

First thing in the morning, I'd get kiddo up to sit on the little potty (easiest catch of the day is when they wake up), put on a YouTube Kids video on phone/tablet and then clip nails (if Monday) and get him dressed.

Otherwise try to get it done while they are asleep?
posted by jillithd at 7:26 AM on September 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I make up ridiculous versions of "This Little Piggy" with their input and can't move on to the next nail until they've approved the creature and activity of said nail. E.g., "aaaaand this little pterodactyl was gassy!" etc.
posted by thenewbrunette at 7:32 AM on September 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

PS: nail clippers were useless for us. We tried multiple ones up and down the cost spectrum. We've used for about a year. They pointy bit is blunted, they're slightly curved, and the cutting edges are sharp enough so that you don't have to exert a lot of pressure. In the year+ we've been using it, we've only had one cut bad enough to draw blood.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:33 AM on September 15, 2017

We use one of those multisided files and TV.
posted by notjustthefish at 7:37 AM on September 15, 2017

Please forgive me, I know that kids are not cats, but the nail-clipping problem is well established with cats, and here's what has worked, sometimes, for me: slowly increase time being held still: start with being held still for a microsecond, and give some kind of treat so there's a positive association, then the next day do the microsecond hold and then go to being held still for a whole second, and gradually increase the time. That way, the feeling of being trapped -- which I remember applied to me as a child -- doesn't factor in as much. Being held still for just a moment and then released reassures on a primal level that you are still safe and in control.

If the clippers themselves are scary or distasteful, then a gradual acclimatization (with or without treats) can help there too.

Once the basic fear isn't so much a factor, I've seriously had another person distracting the subject with a toy or treat while I quickly did some clipping.

It never really got perfect -- we only fostered these cats for a while before they got adopted by other people, anyway -- but it did make things work.

*** One other thing: I always made sure to have some kind of ritual -- towel on a table, going into a separate part of the house, for a kid maybe some kind of statement in words -- so that they knew that this being held was temporary and not the same as being held affectionately. I do not believe in trying to grab little creatures by surprise because that makes them always nervous and distrustful
posted by amtho at 7:39 AM on September 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

I had the same problem, so we always did it while he was deeply asleep.
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 7:48 AM on September 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

At that age I still did it while she was sleeping but a few moths older, I give her a pair of clippers for her to mess with while I clip hers - we end up having to switch back and forth a lot. This works better for feet and I mostly sort of let the fingernails peel away of her own.

One thing I've noticed is that the infant clippers don't work very well and I just have to use the regular adult ones.
posted by vunder at 7:48 AM on September 15, 2017

My niece she'd sit down & they'd do "spa" day together. Mummy would do her nails, file them put on some polish then do the toddlers with some simple kid safe nail polish. Toddlers love copying adults. My SIL resorted to biting them when my nephew when he was that age as he couldn't be talked into wanting glittery nail polish.
posted by wwax at 7:50 AM on September 15, 2017

Battery-operated nail files like this are awesome for babies - they feel a teensy bit tickly and are hard to mess up, and faster than regular files.

Screen time is an ideal distraction (we'd watch a short cat video on YouTube or something similar) but if you're not into the idea of screen time, a really entertaining book can do it. You'll need a second grown-up to hold/read the book while you work on the nails.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:54 AM on September 15, 2017

My mom cut my nails when I was asleep.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:58 AM on September 15, 2017

Best answer: Seconding iPad or while they're asleep. I'm not above having a second adult help to hold them down so I only have to grip their hand and clip if there's a particular talon that needs urgent trimming.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:00 AM on September 15, 2017

We are a screen free house so we really struggled with this (and still sometimes have some hard days). What has worked best for us is giving the monkeys some decision making power in the situation:

Adultish person: We have to cut our nails tonight because you are scratching me/other person and that hurts/you have a hangnail and I do not want you to get an ouchie on your finger. Which nail should we start with? Why don't you pick.


Adultish person: Can you get the nail scissors from [X location] and tell me where you want to sit while I cut your nails?

It has been a slow process to get where we are (at first just a nail or two a session) but we usually get the nails cut in one sitting now and the monkeys feel like they have some control/contribution to the process. We also show them how we cut our own nails and make it a family event.
posted by anya32 at 8:26 AM on September 15, 2017

emery board.
posted by zippy at 8:27 AM on September 15, 2017

Seconding while asleep. I think 14 months might be pushing it but I definitely did this while my kids were asleep until somewhere around 1 year.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 8:28 AM on September 15, 2017

I have a 2 1/2 year old (who I swear is a lost member of Cirque du Soleil because of her crazy squirming and flailing) and I cut her nails while she's asleep. If your daughter sleeps in the car, you may have luck cutting her nails while she's asleep in the car seat. That worked for me as well when she was younger. Good luck - I completely feel your pain!
posted by Nutritionista at 8:43 AM on September 15, 2017

We have done three things:
  • Do it while they are asleep. Honestly, this works way longer than 14mo and our children are light sleepers. Just do it right after they fall into deep sleep about 10-15min after they go to sleep.
  • Just keep at it... do 2 nails at a time or whatever they will sit for and finish all four appendages over a couple of days.
  • Last resort... just do it. Yes, it's nice to coax and work around/with them, but sometimes you just have to do what you have to do while they wail. We do not let our children walk around in wet/dirty diapers just because they are averse to a change (and boy can they be averse when trying to become more independent but not yet potty trained) because it is a health/hygiene issue. It's the same for nails when they are getting ridiculously long and they are scratching their faces and others with them, collecting smelly dirt/food underneath, etc, and you've been trying for days to get it done. As a bonus, for older toddlers, they can see that choosing the time and place is better than denying it until the choice is made for them.

posted by no1hatchling at 8:54 AM on September 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh man, I used to just bite their nails when they were sleeping. I don't think I ever once used nail clippers, when they got older they used files.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:12 AM on September 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best option is to have a second adult sit on the child and help hold them immobile. Also nails are easier to cut after bath time.
posted by bq at 9:26 AM on September 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I suggest you break every single negative association she has by completely reframing nail-clipping as a fun game.

Get a new nail clipper that looks interesting (like a colourful one and put a big Elmo sticker on the businesss end of it- something very different than whatever you've been using).
Go outside so the whole vibe is different than any time it's ever been done before.
Plonk the kid down safely in a high chair..... and then ignore her.

One parent says to the other, "Look what I have! It's a special Elmo Kisser! Elmo wants to kiss your fingertip, is it ok if Elmo kisses your finger?" (don't use any words she already hates, like "cut your nail").

Mommy helps Elmo kiss Daddy's finger. Make it a fun and intriguing game- "Point out your finger, still like this... Elmo is coming, for his kiss! MWAH!" Daddy role-models holding his finger very still and being excited, Mommy makes a loud Kiss sound as the nail is cut, Daddy laughs and enjoys it.

While clipping, Mommy talks to Daddy just like you would to the toddler, and gives Daddy a yummy or fun treat after each nail is clipped (he gets to blow a bubble wand, eat a smartie, whatever). "You held your hand so perfectly still, Enjoy your Treat! I know you will!" Yum yum!

COMPLETELY IGNORE THE CHILD (but make sure she's watching, obviously).

Make this game soooo fun, but just mildly exclude her.

If she's not begging for a try by the time Daddy's 10 nails are done, then swap- Mommy is so excited for her turn! Daddy now cuts Mommy's nails, same little rhymes, same funny noises, same all-new friendly vocabulary, same treat after each nail.

If she's still not begging for a try, maybe even let her be the kisser... she gets to "kiss" the parents' fingertips and give them the treat... (she's probably too little to hurt you with the nail clipper? Let's hope so)

Anyway... after 10 minutes or so of this brand new fun exciting outdoor and Smartie-filled game that bears NO RELATIONSHIP to the horror of getting her nails cut, she'll probably participate willingly.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:40 AM on September 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: A variety of options from self, family, and friends:

-TV, especially some loud obnoxious thing you wouldn't normally allow. Or a favorite Disney movie, clip during the songs

-Baby nail dremel, because clippers resulted in too many clipped fingers with a wiggler

-grabbing them after the bath and plonking their hand down on the side of the tub, holding firmly, with their body behind your shoulder so they can't get at you, and just doing it while they shriek

-similar to the above but clamp their arm under your elbow and grimly ignore the wriggling and screaming while you rapidly clip the held-still hand

-a steady supply of cheez-balls supplied by the non-clipping parent as long as the kid holds still. M&Ms also used sometimes but are surprisingly messier. Small spoons of ice cream/sherbert/lemon ice may also work, a spoon tip full after each clip. (Also works for haircuts)

-holding on more gently, as someone noted above, can help a lot, especially if they're old enough to bargain. Another difference in comfort can be whether you hold their hands flat while you clip, or whether they hold on to your finger, so their hand is curled around your non-cutting hand. All of my kids have had preferences one way or the other.

-I can't clip unless they're sitting in my lap -- I'm not coordinated enough to do it while facing them, it's like tieing a tie -- and I'm a lot faster when they're in my lap and I'm doing it the same as I would if it were my own hand. The snuggle seems to help some too.

Good luck! The only thing worse than fingernail clipping is clearing boogers. It's like toddlers are all afraid of witches stealing their bodily products to do dark magic, so they must protest all nose-wipes, fingernail-clips, and haircuts.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:53 AM on September 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes to screentime - nail trimming video time is the only screentime we do with our 19mo. I just put on some kind of cute animal video from youtube. Also seconding wonderful Japanese baby nail scissors (we have these, they are amazing).
posted by omnie at 10:30 AM on September 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I bribed my daughter with m&ms. YMMV.
posted by amro at 10:57 AM on September 15, 2017

Try filing them.
posted by gryphonlover at 11:02 AM on September 15, 2017

I used to do while he slept, until at least 2 yrs, and then a combination of routine (Sunday ist finger nails and Monday toe nails), which still do and he is almost 9, bribes (1 gummi bear per nail) and in case of toe nails also distraction through tv (he hates toe nail cutting).
When he was a toddler we also did this contest whose nails are cleanest/neatest and he loved it.

Btw when there is dirt under the nails the easiest way to get them from under a toddlers nails is during bath time using a washcloth wiping firmly from the nail base to the tip. It sort of squeezes the dirt out.
posted by 15L06 at 11:29 AM on September 15, 2017

I get the clippers with the little light in them and clip my son's nails when he's asleep. Sometimes he'll let me cut them while he's watching tv (he's two) but if he fights me, I just give up and do them in his sleep.
posted by Aquifer at 12:59 PM on September 15, 2017

Best answer: Screen time + sweet treat bribe worked for us.
posted by cestmoi15 at 5:50 PM on September 15, 2017

Have you tried asking her politely to chill out while you trim her nails?


Originally we did it while the little guy was nursing, then with a bottle once he was no longer breastfeeding.
posted by number9dream at 5:53 PM on September 15, 2017

Has Mr. Pterodactyl tried to do it? Because I had this exact problem until we discovered that the evil squirming hellion absolutely loved for her daddy to give her manicures. It's now their thing and I could not be happier.
posted by gatorae at 6:21 PM on September 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I also have a 14 month old and this problem...some of this advice seems pitched at an older child (mine has no concept of bribery or screens being fun, perhaps she's behind!)

We try different things. ONE time, it was pretty pleasant because I spent a long time (like an hour) letting her play with the clippers, very gently aligning them with her nail and clipping every so often. Another time, it helped when Dad did it instead of me. The rest of the time, we just hold her down and try to do it very quickly. I'll take some advice from this thread, though (getting a new "fun" set of clippers seems like it could work).
posted by cpatterson at 5:51 AM on September 16, 2017

Baby nail scissors, round tips. Still tricky (follow the other advice!) but much much much less chance of accidental hurt for anyone.
posted by lokta at 5:52 AM on September 16, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! We haven't previously done any screen time with her but a combination of putting her on my lap and letter her watch Monsterpiece Theatre worked. I don't love the TV thing but three minutes every week or so isn't going to kill her.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:58 AM on September 18, 2017

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