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Toddler Fears: The Dreaded Nail Clippers

Toddler Fears: The Dreaded Nail Clippers

By Amalah

Dear Amy –

Your Advice Smackdown has been a huge help during moments of sleep regressions and other issues we’ve encountered as first-time parents. I’m writing because my husband and I are in a situation where we have no idea what to do next.

Our daughter is turning 3 this month and is a delightful, fun and hilarious little human. Her development is right on track (and in particular her verbal skills, she is super chatty and speaks clearly). She eats pretty well and sleeps well too. She is our only child.

A recent fear has developed that has been hard to overcome. I’d estimate that about 6 months ago she seemingly out of the blue developed an intense fear of having her nails trimmed. After initial reasoning (“it’s not scary”) didn’t work, we turned to bribery (TV, candy, getting her nails painted) which also didn’t work. We’ve tried physically overpowering her, where one of us holds her and the other cuts her nails, but 1) that felt really horrible and 2) she is so squirmy and strong it isn’t even really possible anyway. I’ve tried downloading a fun app/game on my iphone that she plays with where she cuts animals and people’s nails in an effort to ‘desensitize’ the whole issue. She liked the game, but it didn’t transfer over to being less afraid in real life.

A quick online search revealed a brilliant idea: do it when she is sleeping. My husband and I quietly snuck into her room, one with flashlight and one with the trimmers, to cut her nails in her sleep. This worked for the last 3 months until just recently when she’s started startling in her sleep and waking up when we attempt it. We went back to drawing board (bribery, coaxing, having her Grandpa do it, having her hold the clipper while we do it, having her watch us do our own) without any luck. At this point, the toenails are the bigger issue as they are becoming long and jagged, but she has started biting her fingernails to the point where they are normal length and she can’t scratch anyone’s face off.

We are at a loss as to what to do. How do we acknowledge that, for her, this a real fear (even though it is irrational) and help her overcome it? The intensity of her reaction and resistance tells me that she is truly scared. I should mention that she had a similar issue about 1 year ago with taking a bath. She basically screamed, turned bright red, and fought her way to get out of the tub. When you picked her up you could feel her heart beating a mile a minute. That fear got better over the course of the summer, when, on recommendations from our pediatrician, we set up a kiddie pool in the backyard and let her play and have fun with the water that way.

It may be one of those things where this just magically goes away one day … but I don’t see an end in sight. And unfortunately, those little toe nails grow quickly ….

Sadly, you’re probably just going to have to step back and let her outgrow this one. And — barring a special needs-type scenario, which doesn’t sound like a possibility here — she will! I absolutely promise she will chill out about this particular grooming ritual, although I can’t promise it’ll be anytime super-soon.

You’ve tried just about every piece of general advice out there so my advice is to back off and drop the issue as much as you possibly can. No more bribery or games or pretending like nail trimming is the most fun awesome thing ever yaaaaayyyyyy. I mean, it’s not. It doesn’t warrant her level of fear, but she’s right that it’s not a great experience to have big grownups restraining your tiny hands and then remove something you perceive as part of your body with a sharp implement. I’d probably categorize her initial fear with similar toddler terrors re: getting hair cuts or pooping in the potty. Just because it doesn’t hurt doesn’t mean it’s not low-level traumatizing them to have a part of “themselves” cut or taken away. Now that she’s biting her fingernails off suggests she’s outgrown the “origin” of the fear and is probably just afraid of getting hurt, and needs the issue more or less dropped for awhile until she’s old enough for logic (she won’t get hurt if she sits still) to actually be effective.

(Still waiting for my almost-5 year old to get to that logic point re: his irrational fear of getting his hair wet. The kiddie pool and swimming lesson approach didn’t work on him last summer and he’s already starting to freak out about water activities at summer camp and ugggghhhh I need an advice column to write to.)

If you can sneak in after she’s sleeping and get like, one or two toenails cut before she wakes up, consider that a victory. The job will be done within a week and you’ll maybe get a couple nights off before you go back to Nail One. Have her bathe before bed and lotion up her feet (that’ll soften the nails and make them easier to clip), and don’t put her in socks or footie PJs so you can try to get a couple toenails done each night. Maybe add a nightlight near her bed so you don’t need the flashlight risking waking her up, and so one of you can go for a toenail and the other gets a fingernail or two.

Speaking of her fingernails, if you haven’t, try introducing a colorful, fun-looking nail file and offer that as an alternative to shaping off jagged corners. Let her play with it herself or just use it on you at first. Again, try to be as nonchalant about the how issue as possible while she’s awake. Clip and file your own nails in front of her WITHOUT suggesting/encouraging that she take a turn, then leave her nail clippers out where she’ll see them (on the bathroom counter or kitchen table, for example) on a regular basis OUTSIDE the context of a battle. This will help slowly desensitize herself to the sight of them and separating their presence with that zero-to-sixty level of fear.

That said, as unpleasant as her startling awake or holding her forcibly hostage can be, ingrown toenails are no joke and can cause a lot of pain and infection, so just promise yourself that you’ll get at least one or two cut each day, awake or asleep.

Photo source: Stocksy

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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  • Stephanie

    April 11, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    Yeah, here’s why telling a kid “it’s not scary” can totally backfire, because they *are* scared and having their parent act like their feelings don’t exist means they are going to double down and show you exactly how scary this thing is to them. Yes to having cool fun nail files around to play with, yes to dropping the issue and just going on with your life.
    As a kid, there was a while (until at least middle school) when I never actually trimmed or filed my nails, I just ripped them down (ugh I hate the thought so much now, but hey, it’s what I did!) I survived. I trim and file my nails like a regular person now. If you feel like you have to do something, just focus on the big toes, since those nails are often the hardest and most prone to having issues. Just remember straight across, not too short.

  • Ellie

    April 11, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    One strategy that has worked well for our family has been the Janet Lansbury/RIE approach:

    Basically, just validating our toddler’s feelings around it, and making him an active participant. He’s 2.5 now, and I’ve found that I’ve been able to gradually increase the amount of lead time I give him when there is something particularly out-of-the-ordinary and unpleasant for him. I also have these nail scissors: I like them because they don’t make the loud clicking sound of clippers, and because I can involve my kiddo in things like taking them out of the sheath.

    • Allison

      April 12, 2016 at 8:27 pm

      Yes to these nail scissors! They’re cute and sharp and work very well, with the advantage (I think) of letting you more easily see what you’re doing than clippers which cover the nail. 

  • Dori

    April 11, 2016 at 4:17 pm

    My oldest, now 5 (almost 6) had the same fear and he eventually grew out of it. One tip I read was to refer to it as “trimming” instead of “cutting” because it sounds less scary. Not that it helped my kid, but who knows. I also trimmed a couple nails a night to get through them all in the week and that worked well enough. Otherwise, we just kind of waited it out. If it helps, he now seeks me out to trim problem nails. He was also terrified of getting his hair cut and has grown out of that, too. (He is still afraid of getting his hair wet, so Amy, if you ever find the magic solution to that one, please share away!)

  • Meg Murry-ish

    April 11, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    I was one of those children who was terrified of having my toenails cut (and fingernails too, because I knew once the clippers were out my parents were going to try to cut my toenails.)

    In my case, looking back, I realize that I was very sensitive to lots of sensory issues as a child (I wouldn’t touch grass with my bare feet or legs, or wear jeans, or touch bubbles, and all of my picky eating related to food texture) – but for me the trigger on the toenail clipping was that one of my earliest memories is being held down on a doctor’s table while I screamed and the doctor froze a wart off my foot. After that, I could not stand to have anyone touch my feet. 

    I’m afraid I don’t have a great answer for you, because it didn’t go away for me until I was 9 or 10 and convinced my parents I was old enough to let me do it myself so they wouldn’t touch my feet. One thing though – the thing that freaked me out the most (and still does, if I”m not expecting it) is for someone to grab my foot and press their thumb into the ball of my foot – that causes my fight or flight response to go up to 11. Once I figured out that I could handle it if:
    1) I knew the person was going to touch my feet and I gave them permission
    2) They didn’t press their thumb into the ball of my foot, but rather held my foot loosely, with the thumb on top.

    I don’t know if it’s a reflexology thing or just the feeling of being grabbed and I can’t get away, but the ball of the foot thing was the biggest revelation to me.

    Alternately, could you go into this with complete “permission asking” mode? Explain that you know she is scared, but that you are only going to cut one toenail tonight – and then stick to that. Eventually ask if you can cut 2 toenails, etc.

    Last, my kids went through a phase at 3-4 years old where they worshiped the doctor and the dentist, so I would get the dentist to say “don’t forget, you have to brush your teeth every day” or the doctor to say “you need to stay clean to be healthy, so you have to let mommy and daddy wash your hair”. After that, I could pull out “the dentist said brush your teeth, remember?” and that works at least 75% of the time.

  • Holly

    April 11, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    Not exactly an answer, but my kids at roughly that same age would FREAK about having their nails clipped – but if I did it in the tub? They were totally cool. So, to this day, I still do it while they’re in the tub. Maybe they’re so busy with tub activities it doesn’t bother them as much? Occasionally they’ll need a random clip while dry, and it is a struggle. So bath is the way to go for us.

  • Bean

    April 11, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    Someone suggested to us that we give our daughter carrots or some other crunchy food to distract her. It worked!

  • Flic

    April 11, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    I was that kid that HATED having my nails (fingers or toes) trimmed.

    Partly because clippers have always (and still do) freak me out. I HAVE to do them with scissors, nothing else.
    And secondly, I refused to let my mum do them, only my dad was allowed, because my mum used to cut them too short, right down to the quick, and they would hurt.

  • Jodie

    April 11, 2016 at 11:32 pm

    How does she feel about nail polish? Could you try a date to a pedicure place as a way of getting her over the fear?

  • Anna

    April 12, 2016 at 4:25 am

    As a 2-year old I insisted on cutting my own nails, so my mom handed me the scissors on a “what’s the worst that can happen?” basis, And… apparently I was ready, and did not stab myself once, and have been cutting my own nails since.

    Of course this is not a method I would recommend with every kid, it really depends on the temperament, overall scissor skills, etc. But it might be worth a try with baby nail scissors now, or even building up to it over a few months by practicing cutting paper first.

  • julie

    April 13, 2016 at 8:39 am

    We use humor. For the longest time dragons were real for our boys. So we tell them that they were are scraggily dragon toes and gently tease them into letting us trim the worst of the lot. After a good long bath helps- the sound is less “clippy” if nothing else. No one is happy about the littlest toes, but we get them every other time or so.

  • Angela

    April 14, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    Just use a nail file.  I’ve always just used a nail file on my son.

  • Mandy

    April 14, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    Our son freaked out for a couple years until the last time I “trimmed” them (definitely use that instead of CUT). I finally figured out that his feet are ticklish just like mine. Holding his feet and toes were uncomfortable for him. I wrapped a cloth (hand towel, dish towel, etc) around his foot and held the two ends tightly together over the top of his foot (don’t actually hold his foot or toes). HE TOTALLY COOPERATED! It was like some sort of miracle…hope it helps you!

  • April

    April 15, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    What worked for us was letting her watch me trim the cats nails. She got to give the cat a treat for each paw. Then she asked for a turn and I gave her a jellybean for each hand. Now I do their nails together. No idea why it works or if it could be replicated. Before that discovery she was a total pain to trim.