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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

Published April 11, 2016. Last updated July 16, 2017.
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 [email protected].

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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