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Trimming Toddler's Nails

Toddler Wars: Nail Trimming

By Amalah

Hey Amy,

This is probably really obvious to most parents, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how to trim my daughter’s nails without her fussing, whining, squirming, etc. I have the Safety First baby nail clippers and I only knicked her skin once when she was 3 weeks old. She’s 13 months and it is getting harder and harder to wrangle her into holding still, not to mention that now her toenails need to be trimmed. It seems like her nails are scratchy within a week of the last trim, too, so we’re right back in the rocking chair with the nail clippers. Please tell me there is something really easy that I could be doing to get through this. I’m dreading the next several years of trying to get her to hold still!

Thank you!

Wait until she’s asleep. Really good and fast asleep. Then cut ’em off covert ninja style. Bring a stepstool to make it easier to reach them in her crib. Skip the socks or footie pajamas on nights you plan to trim her toenails.

That said, OCCASIONALLY it’s still a good idea to try to trim them while she’s awake…probably not right now, at 13 months, but as she gets older, just to keep the concept from becoming completely foreign and unfamiliar. Trim your own nails in front of her. If she seems at all interested in what you’re doing, see if she’ll submit to a practice snip. If not, fine. You’ll get her later. In her sleep. And her dreams. Mwa ha ha ha.

At some point — probably sooner than you’ll be ready for it — she might ask for nail or toenail polish, if you regularly wear either. And that’s usually the point when you can seize the trade-off opportunity and say fine, but you have to show Mommy that you can sit still and let me trim your nails first. And yes, I can testify that this works for us parents of all boys, too. (I got a bottle of bright blue nail polish as a party favor at BlogHer. My kids dig it. WHATEVER.) If you’re not comfortable with nail polish, a sheet of cool nail stickers/decals can also be a good bribe incentive for an older toddler or still-fighting-it preschooler.

Both of my boys were squirmers as babies and young toddlers, so we did the nighttime clipping for awhile. I don’t remember exactly how long, but now it’s no big deal. I promise: THEY DO EVENTUALLY CALM DOWN ABOUT IT. Huzzah! Probably by two, we were able to whip out the clippers whenever we noticed the talons and deal with it immediately instead of having to remember to sneak back their rooms later. Noah now understands the cause-and-effect part of it: If you squirm and wiggle and fight me, you’re more likely to end up with a nick or cut. It’s a glorious day when that bit of logic finally sinks in.

I trim Ezra’s nails after his bath, while he’s wrapped up tight in a towel on my lap, and I do a modified version of Five Little Piggies that I made up. Not THAT modified, just add “aaaand SNIP!” to each piggy’s activity: This little piggy went to market aaand SNIP, this little piggy stayed home aaaand SNIP, etc. And of course the last little piggy goes SNIP SNIP SNIP all the way home, and there’s still plenty of tickling involved.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Therese

    March 4, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Seriously, trimming of the nails should be a class they offer to parents along with breastfeeding and how to swaddle and all that other stuff! We had the exact same squirmy/fighting problem with my son and it made me nuts! I’ve noticed just in the past month or so that he’ll sit still (mostly) for a nail trim. He will be 22 months old next week. I’m guessing age has something do to with it. I find it did help when I did my nail maintenance (trimming/filing) in front of him. I guess it took some of the mystery away. I should mention that we have to trim nails at least once a week, sometimes more. My son has excema and one way to keep the scratching down is to keep the nails SUPER short. Now what works the best is the post bathtime, wrapped in a towel setting or the” mommy is trimming her nails how about we do yours too” time. When he was about the age your daughter is now, we had to resort to more covert operations (during sleep) and used a variety of distractions (food, tv, books, whatever would keep him still for a minute or so). I found mealtime while he was strapped in his highchair a great time to get toenails clipped. Sometimes I’d get just one hand or maybe a few fingers done and then have to wait awhile and try again to finish. This particular method made me nuts because I am all about efficiency. Unfortunately, young children are not. I will say I did my best (not always successful) in keeping it a positive experience (stopped if the fussing, squirming, screaming) got too bad as I didn’t wany my son to have negative associations with nail trimming. We seem to have turned the corner just in the past few weeks or so. If nothing else, hopefully time will make the process easier for you as well. Good Luck!

  • Olivia

    March 4, 2011 at 11:36 am

    I only do it when my two yr old is sleeping. At least once a week I purposely let her fall asleep in my lap so I can clip her nails. She has occasionaly allowed me to clip a few while she was a awake, but it’s a gamble so I prefer doing it while she sleeps.

  • Rachel

    March 4, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    The ONLY thing that will motivate our 2yo to let us cut his nails is his new baby sister. If I tell him I’m going to cut her nails he gets jealous and wants his done first. Otherwise I’m out of luck. I think this may be the only example where a new baby has actually made life with a 2yo easier…

  • Rebecca

    March 4, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    We have made it into a game. Everytime I clip a nail I make it dramatic – like it flew over my head or it hit me in the face and I try to make it a laughing session. My daughter sits through the entire thing and laughs hysterically while I’m “hurt” from the snip. We have never had a problem or a squirm. In fact she will run to her chair and get excited when the clippers come out.

  • Erin W

    March 4, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    My son is three and he and I play “letters” on the computer before bed each night ( While he’s sitting on my lap and sounding out words I grab his little fingers and trim the nails that need it. He’s usually pretty transfixed by the “letters” so it goes easily.

  • the grumbles

    March 4, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    We just get the job done while he’s awake. Yes, there is often screaming. My husband usually scoops him up on his lap and holds him still. They take turns– cut one nail, toddler gets to inspect the clippers for a minutes or two. Cut next nail, inspect clippers, repeat. He likes feeling involved in the process. Still? There’s screaming. We just make it fast. It’s got to be done and I’m not willing to sneak around about it.

  • Trish

    March 4, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    We don’t let our 18 mo old watch a lot of TV. We just have a few Baby Einstein like vids for the odd emergency. Nail cutting is just such an emergency. He totally zones, and I clip while he’s watching. Interestingly, he was sick this week and apparently wanted to watch TV, b/c he brought me the nail clippers.

  • Heather

    March 4, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    I follow Grumbles plan pretty much. I also let him “cut” mine. When he really isn’t in the mood he picks the ones I can clip to just get the worst of them. At 2.5 he is only just now about at the point where he might accidently manage to clip a nail of mine.

  • Lauren E. E.

    March 4, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    We do it when our son is strapped into his car seat or stroller. There is still flailing, but it’s a little easier to control.

  • AA

    March 4, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Elmo is Toddler crack and is perfect for things like cutting nails.  

  • Amy in StL

    March 4, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    I’ll have to share this with my mom who has to cut my 88 year old father’s toenails. (Dude, old men are grumpy!) Unfortunately he doesn’t sleep so soundly, I guess you can’t swaddle at that age, huh?

  • Nancy

    March 4, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    My 18 month old sleeps with her hands tucked under her so that we can not trim her nails in her sleep! She’s on to our tricks already. So we do the hold in the lap and hope for the best. Frequently Aunie Lydia does “special manicures” which is exciting to her and gets the job done.

    • Dawn

      March 11, 2015 at 1:16 am

      YES! This is totally my daughter. She rolls on to her belly the minute I grab her hand and then she tucks them under her. Every week is a battle royale just to clip her nails. I am amazed how how sharp those things can get in just a week. They feel like razors on my skin. I wish her dad would help me with the nail trimmings, I feel like such a bad guy being the only one doing it. 

  • linsey

    March 4, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    I remember the stress of this!!! It’s awful. What worked for us was for me to sing loudly some egregious children’s song while snipping (I am very much not a singer). It was so distracting to my son that he stopped yelling, squirming, everything, just to listen.

  • Nicole

    March 4, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    Put child on lap, facing outward. Put youtube video of Elmo in front of child. They can ONLY watch Elmo while you clip nails (you say). They comply. As soon as I say “Can I clip your nails?”, to my not-yet-2-year old, he gets so excited and yells “ELMO!”. Totally compliant on my lap.

  • HereWeGoAJen

    March 4, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    Elizabeth will sometimes let me cut her nails when I ask her to stick her hand or foot through the crib bars. (Because apparently, that is funny.) Other times, I give her a pair of nail clippers and my foot and she “cuts” my nails. (Once it hurt, other than that she’s not even come close to actually cutting anything.) Otherwise, we do it in front of the television or she sits on her daddy’s lap and he shows her video of herself on his computer. I find it works better if we change up whatever we do as a distraction. When she still nursed, I cut her nails while she was nursing and it worked every time.

  • Jay

    March 4, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    I’m pregnant with my first now, so this might be a stupid question, but why do you have to trim them at all? Why can’t you just use a file? I never trim my nails–I only file.

    • D-Bone Holmes

      February 25, 2013 at 10:39 pm

      Because by the time you are finished filing the last nail, the first one needs it again! lol.. Their nails grow SO FAST! I swear if I took the time I could watch them grow!

  • cassie

    March 4, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    Huh. I get at my 15 month old while he’s in the high chair drinking and eating. The toe nails? NO PROBLEM! He doesn’t even really realize I’m doing it. The finger nails? He notices, but he’s so much more interested in the food he’s shoveling into his face with the other hand that he doesn’t fight it very much.

    Jay – I don’t know about all babies, but mines HATES HATES HATES the rasping of the nail file, so in addition to the squirming, there’s also sobbing and tantruming. I’d rather just deal with one issue, not both so I stick with the clippers. Although filing seems to be highly recommended in a lot of places, so maybe my kid is just a bit weird in that area?

  • Alissa

    March 4, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    I used a nail file til, oh, about four months ago when I finally got up the courage to try the clippers.  My son is 2…

    As I used a nail file from the time he was a wee tiny little babe, he didn’t mind at all.  But the nail trimmer is faster than the file when they get to be big enough to have real nails.  You know, when they’re 2.

    Now I tell him he’s not allowed to play with the clippers unless he stays very still for the trimming.  He’s fairly compliant.

  • Tiffany

    March 5, 2011 at 12:10 am

    I agree with AA, Elmo IS toddler crack, and since my son (18 mos.) doesn’t get to watch tv that much when I need to clip his nails a little Elmo time makes it soooo easy. He is completely engrossed in Elmo or Calliou or other equally awesome public tv kids show and tadaaaa nails are clipped without fighting or fussing. The high chair works great for toenails too

  • Nanette

    March 5, 2011 at 1:14 am

    We use cuticle scissors to cut our 2.5-year-old’s nails. Over the past couple of months she’s finally stopped fighting us. Before that, I’d hold her in my lap, facing outward, while my husband sat in front of us, distracting her with books or holding her squirmy body down so I could focus just on the nails. 

    Also, I still have an extra set of cuticle scissors in the glove compartment, which I used when she’d fall asleep in the car. 

  • cls

    March 5, 2011 at 11:01 am

    wow, nail-clipping, who knew. this might be one of the few moments when having a pet bunny is good training for having a kid.

    i feel totally ready for the “gently hold inside a towel”; “separate one paw out at a time”; and “snip while saying calming distracting things, with petting in between.” My bunny went from needing 3 people holding him down at the vets to just me, my voice, and the towel (which is mostly just to make my lap an even place to sit on, anyway, not to restrain him). Too bad babies don’t fit cuddled inside one’s armpit, in a pinch, in quite the same way that bunnies do!

  • Meg

    March 5, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    They actually sell nail clippers with little lights on them specifically for sleep clippings.  

  • Maria

    March 5, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    My son is 20 months old (as of today… time flies) and we’ve also made it a game. The last few months I’ve been counting out his fingers and toes as I trim them, and it’s worked for two reasons. 1. He’s now LOVING learning to count (and he gets really good at it when we’re trimming too!) and 2. He’s learning patience, because he knows that when I get to 10 I’m all done! So if he’s counting out the fingers with me and we get to 7, 8, or 9 than he knows he can wait it out and not squirm so much.

  • erin

    March 6, 2011 at 5:30 am

    i find that it makes a difference to warm them up first- i put her nail scissors in my bra for a while (hahaha! oh goodness.. have i become a weird mum)
    she doesn’t seem to notice me cutting her nails as quickly if it’s warm to the touch rather than sudden cold metal against her fingertips.

  • stacy

    March 6, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    when my girl was little I used cuticle nippers (the short, pointy clippers with a long handle), as her little nails were so tiny that the scissors were too large and the baby nail clippers made it so I couldn’t really see very well and I was afraid I would pinch her skin. At about 18 months I switched to the baby nail scissors, and she was so squirmy and screamy that the sharpness of the cuticle nippers made me think I might poke her. Now we do it just after a bath, sometimes in the bath, and I also use the loud crazy singing technique. I also call it nail trimming, not cutting, as I think that sounds scary!

  • Hillary

    March 7, 2011 at 9:33 am

    YAY you answered my question! And it is so nice to see that others have had similar challenges and come up with such creative solutions. After a long battle with getting her to sleep, you couldn’t pay me to disturb her when she’s out, so here’s what I did: I put her on the changing table so I could sort of pin her down if necessary (she’s too squirmy in my lap) and then I made a really loud “SSSSSSNIP!” sound with each clip and she calmed right down. I let her play with the clippers and made a ‘snip’ when she got close to my nails. She even giggled once! The squirming was substantially reduced so the whole thing only took a few minutes. THANK YOU!!!!
    Oh, and for the other commenters, I couldn’t do scissors or a file after about 3 months because of the squirming – I was too worried I’d poke her with the scissors, and couldn’t see well enough with either to get the job done.

  • Rhia

    March 7, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Oh my god. My life changed when I threw out the safety clippers and started using regular curved nail scissors. I can see what I’m doing, my babe can see what I’m doing and it’s over in a flash.

  • Jennifer

    March 7, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    My FIVE YEAR OLD son actually got in huge trouble last night for hitting me after I clipped one of his fingernails because he asked me to.  After I did it, he said it felt weird and he couldn’t do anything with that finger (which he has said before).  Funny thing was, until about six months ago he never gave us any trouble about nail clipping.  SO now I transfix the toddler with babies playing peekaboo on YouTube for a few minutes to get his done, and the older boy can’t wear his shoes or socks until he sits down for me to clip his toenails after his Friday bath. He is irrationally attached to wearing shoes and socks at all times. 

  • Caitlyn

    March 8, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Baby Signing Time to the rescue again – the baby watches, my husband holds her, I clip.  Over in a jiffy.  Usually.  She’s 13 months old.

    We don’t use the DVDs often, but I think it’s probably okay to use ten minutes here and there as needed distractions.

  • Tara

    March 8, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    I always used the cheap emery boards when they were little. That way they could play with one too. Also… since the kids like to do things that others get to do, I started doing (or pretending to do) my nails a lot more. “Oh, that’s nice.”… “Oh, that feels much better.”… “oooh, pretty.”… Worked like a charm on my girls, my son will let me get the worst few before getting distracted. Also, foe my son who injures himself fairly often… I kiss his hand/foot & tell him we’ll make it better & clip a nail or two. Then he’s off to play again. 🙂

  • bhn

    March 8, 2011 at 11:44 pm

    A few little tips.

    One, start cutting/filing their nails when they’re very little, when they’re wide awake. If you always cut their nails when they’re asleep you’ll always have to cut them when they’re asleep – and after a hard-fought sleep battle most of us wouldn’t chance waking up a sleeping toddler!

    Two, use a nail file as much as possible. Those crystal/glass ones are ideal.

    Three, distraction. My kid (18 mo) loves holding the nail clippers and pretending to clip, so I give him a pair to play with while I clip the other hand or his feet.

  • D

    March 14, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    I hope everyone’s not horrified by this, but here’s a dirty secret for parents who don’t trust themselves with sharp objects near their babies: Bite ’em. Seriously. I bite my kid’s nails off while he’s nursing. It works.