Learn how to handle your child’s sensitivity to nail cutting without an epic meltdown with these 10 tips. You’ll know exactly what to do the next time you have to cut their nails!
When I walked into their house, Jane* looked at me as their occupational therapist and didn’t mince words, “I can’t cut Jake’s nails. Can you help me?”
She was obviously frustrated, to say the least.
Jane knew that this sensitivity to nail cutting must have something to do with his sensory processing, although she wasn’t sure how. So, we talked about what Jake was doing when she tried to cut his nails:
- Running away
- Crying like his toes were being cut off
And, his toe nails were beginning to curl at the ends from not being cut! Since he was a toddler, and oblivious to what we were talking about, he was in a good mood. Happily entertaining himself with his trains. This was good. I was going to use it to my advantage!
But, first, I needed to fill in some gaps for Jane…
*Names changed to protect privacy.
Is it a nail cutting phobia?
In my experience, the vast number of kids that don’t like to have their finger or toe nails cut aren’t refusing because of a nail cutting phobia. Of course it’s possible, but just as Jane was already suspecting, there was a real reason her son was running from the clippers, and it might be why yours is too.
Why do some kids have a sensitivity to nail cutting?
The reason many kids avoid or detest nail cutting is because, either before or afterwards, it’s extremely uncomfortable or even painful to them. It’s an odd sensation, when you think about it.
This extreme reaction is directly related to their sensory processing. It’s a sensory sensitivity. Your child is not being bad, however exhausting it is. Their sensitivity is sensory in nature and they’re feeling the mundane but necessary task of getting their nails cut with a lot more intensity than you or I are.
Some kids have sensitivity to nail cutting as an isolated incident, but others may have other sensory red flags, or even a diagnosis like Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or Autism. Kids that have these diagnoses have a higher likelyhood of sensory processing needs. In Jake’s case, he didn’t have or need a diagnosis, but had other sensory differences such as picky eating and difficulty with getting his hair washed.
If you want to understand more head to “What is Sensory“. I’ve got a short video there that I think will be very helpful!
Tips for Kids and Toddlers with Sensitivity to Nail Cutting
If your kid’s nails are curling over and you dread attempting another nail cutting, whether they’re a toddler or 8 years old, there are ways to help them cope and even get over this sensory sensitivity. Below you’ll find 10 of my best tips to get the job done without sending your kid over the edge:
1. Choose Your Time Wisely
As parents, we’re spinning a hundred plates at one time, and when cutting nails is another task on the to-do list, you’ve just got to get it done. But, that may backfire if you’re dealing with a sensitivity to nail cutting. It’s worth finding a time when your child is relaxed and you are too.
This is just what we did with Jake, he was pleasant. Not sleepy, hungry, or irritated, which, as a toddler, he often was. Even attempting nail cutting at this time made it so much more successful because we didn’t have these other factors we couldn’t control fighting against us!
2. Think calming and organizing first
If your child is almost never calm, or can’t seem to sit still, you may need to give them a hand with some activities that can help them settle down. What activities these are will differ from child to child. Many sensory kids love proprioceptive input, so jumping, climbing, or running might be helpful. Think playing on the swing set for 20 minutes then trying to cut nails.
Or, your child may relax after playing in a sensory bin for a little while or listening to calming music. If you aren’t sure, experiment and pay attention to what they do. Many kids will try to self calm at times.
Get inspired with more calming proprioceptive activities here.
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3. Hug or surround them
This is my favorite tip and one that I use in my own home. I’ll sit with my son snuggled in between my legs, which gives lots of deep pressure (aka more proprioceptive input) and then cut their nails. Just like in the pic below.
But, for Jake, we used a little toddler fold out couch that he could snuggle into like this one when it was folded out before cutting his nails. You could also use a bean bag chair or a pile of pillows, or even a corner. This works especially well if your child isn’t keen on hugs or lots of contact.
4. Bring a friend
Sometimes it helps to have another caregiver or adult around. They can help with any of the other tips, be there for moral support, or step in if you need a break.
5. Be calm, reassuring
As you approach your child about cutting their nails, be calm and reassuring. If you’re stressed, they’re going to feel that too, and it will only make it worse. I know personally how these feelings can escalate, so you may have to check your feelings at the door.
6. Don’t get too close!
Some kids become sensitive to nail cutting because of a past cutting too close incident. Take extra care not to cut too close to their nail bed so it doesn’t spiral into a memory they want to avoid. Also, from a sensory standpoint, kids are more sensitive closer to the nail bed, and sometimes when you cut too close, it can leave an uncomfortable sensation AFTER your done cutting their nails.
This is one time when using distractions is A-OK. Distractions could be as simple as singing a song together, having another adult read to them, or giving them something to play with. Of course, you can use a tablet or the TV too, if all other distractions fail.
8. Sing a Song
Speaking of singing songs, using the same short song every time you cut your child’s nails may help them cope better because they can predict when the end is coming. As parents, we tend to say things like, “Almost done,” but to a child that is very abstract and they don’t know when the torture is going to end.
If you sing “Mary had a little lamb” every time you cut their nails, they know that at the end of the song their nails will be done. So choose a song that’s familiar to them and that will give you enough time to finish before the song ends!
9. Use a firm pressure
Whether they’re sitting in between in your legs or not, hold their hand or foot with a firm pressure while cutting. This, again, is calming to the irritating sensation that they feel at the end of their fingers or toes.
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10. Using Extra Tools and Toys
Sometimes kids could use some extra sensory tools to help them, but what that is all depends on your child. For instance, some kids love vibration, so a vibrating toy in their hands can help balance or regulate their sensory system during nail cutting. Another child may love heavy objects and a weighted pillow on their lap can make a huge difference. Here’s a list of some sensory toys that I often experiment with:
- Holding a vibrating bug (super inexpensive, can snag one here)
- Weighted lap pad across their lap
- Squeezing a stress ball (you can get one here or follow these DIY instructions)
- Biting on a chewy necklace or chewing gum
- Hugging a stuffed animal
If you aren’t sure what types of sensory tools or toys would help your child, head to Choosing the Right Sensory Toy so you can make the best guess, because when it comes to sensory it does vary from child to child.
Would Special Nail Clippers Help?
I get asked this question all the time, but I’ve never personally used any special clippers. However, I did come across this electric nail file that smooths the nails down, instead of clips it. My guess is that some kids would prefer this, but for other’s it will give other sensations that could be equally intense. If you’ve used any special clippers successfully, please share them with us in the comments!
Make Your Plan for Cutting Your Child’s Nails!
Now that you’ve got all the tips and ideas why your kid is sensitive to getting their nails cut, take a minute to think through how your next nail cutting attempt will go. Thinking this through in advance will help you keep your cool and your stress down.
This is where I’d start:
First, would your child be calmer with some other type of sensory activity? If so, do that before you even suggest cutting their nails. Or, have an idea of when your child will be at their best and when another adult will be around.
Then, gather any tools that you need, like your nail clippers, distractions, a stuffed animal to squeeze, or any other toys that might help them balance out their sensory system.
Next, when it’s time tell your child calmly that you’re going to cut nails in a few minutes. If they meet you with a meltdown, say clearly, “I have something new we’re going to try.” This will likely pique their interest. Or, if a warning causes your child to freak, simply say, “We’ll come back to your Barbies in just one second, we have to cut your nails quickly. You can hold a Barbie if you want, and I’ll be careful not to cut too close.”
Finally, get them seated either in between your legs or in some pillows, like we talked about above. And, clip quickly while you’re holding that firm pressure on their hand or food.
Of course, your plan may look a little different, depending on what tips will help your child! Alright Momma, now you’re armed with some powerful strategies.
Could Your Kid Use Some More Help?
Remember Jake, using a lot of the tips from above, we were able to get his nails cut without any tears. Jane was amazed and thought it was a miracle, and I guess it was in a way, but when you understand the sensory angle it changes how you help your kid.
You start to see them and the challenges they’re facing in a new light!
If you think or know your kid has other sensory needs, you won’t want to miss the free Sensory Workshop I co-teach. You’ll learn 4 simple but powerful steps to your child handle their sensory preferences and quirks.
And, before you go, make sure to tell me what tip you think is going to help your child the most. Or, if you’re not sure, ask me below!
More on Sensory Sensitivities in Kids
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.