What do you do if your child can’t tolerate their finger or toenails being cut? It’s a very common problem in families where there are children with Sensory Processing Disorders or who are on the Autistic Spectrum. Parents try every strategy and tactic they can think of until they run out of ideas. Something that is a relatively simple task in most households can send families like ours to the very edge of despair. 

 It’s a question that I’m regularly asked, and it came up again on The Special Parent’s Handbook Facebook Page. When you are a special needs parent, you soon learn that the best information and advice often comes from other parents who have been there, so I threw it open to other parents, and I asked for them to help by pooling their ideas and suggestions. 

So here’s what they said – real solutions from real families! 

 child fingernails

Do it carefully once your child is in a deep sleep.

  • This was suggested by several parents, and for many it seems to work well, even if they have to climb in under the duvet with a torch.
  • However one parent said that for her child the best time to do it was exactly 15 minutes after she had dropped off to sleep.
  • Another parent pointed out that, although it works most of the time, you do run the risk of waking the child up, and they’ll be furious and you’ll never be able to get them back to sleep easily!
  •  I’ve done the sleep time nail cutting too, but I’ve always been wary of waking them up so I only cut one or two nails each night, which takes about 3 weeks to work your way around all their fingers and toes, by which time you have to start the whole process again!

Do it in the bath

  • Soaking in a bath makes fingernails and toenails become softer, so they are easier to cut.
  • One mother always cuts her son’s nails in the bath under the water, because it muffles the sound.
  • Another parent said that the bath was great because their child couldn’t run away!
  • Other parents find that the best time to cut nails is straight after a bath, when their child’s nails are still soft, and they are still feeling the relaxing benefits of having been in a nice warm bath.
  • If you are going to try cutting nails in the bath or when the child is still wet, take into account that they might be slippery, so make sure you are able to hold each finger and toe firmly enough to be able to do it effectively.
  • Try using different types of equipment
  • Every child is different, but by experimenting with different things, you may find one method that is easier for your child to cope with. One mother uses baby nail-clippers, other parents find their children prefer nail scissors, with the curved bladed nail scissors being successful in some families.
  • Other parents have had to give up cutting nails altogether, but have found that their child can tolerate nail files much better, so nails are filed instead of being cut.
  • Some children get on best with battery-operated nail files – that could be worth a try too.

De-sensitising your child

  • Try and find out which aspect of nail cutting your child can’t cope with – for some it is the sensation, for others it’s the sound of clippers or scissors, and sometimes it’s the fear of it hurting.
  • Some parents have used foot massagers to help their children learn to tolerate different sensations on their feet.
  • Introduce tickling games, then move up to using nail files.
  • Get them used to hearing the noise of nail clippers.
  • Let them watch you when you cut your own nails, or even let them cut yours for you.
  • Touch their nail with the nail-clippers or nail file, without doing anything else. You can turn it into a game – either counting fingers and toes or playing “This little Piggy”.
  • Some children find it easier during nail-cutting time if there is music playing – not only does it make them feel more relaxed but it can also cut out some of the noise that the clippers make.
  • Many parents said that they found massaging their child’s fingers and toes, or in some cases their hands and feet, helped to make their child less sensitive.
  • One child eventually told his mum that the reason he doesn’t like his nails short is that he can’t feel his knife and fork in the same way!  Once you know something like that, you’re more than halfway towards solving the problem with a compromise along the lines of agreeing not to cut them quite so short.
  • One parent had been on an autism-specific course about sensory issues where she learnt a technique to “polish” the nails as a de-sensitising exercise.  She highly recommended other parents finding out about and taking part in similar courses.

Ask for help

  • As parents, we are often too close and too emotionally involved, and our children are more relaxed with us and therefore more likely to react adversely towards our nail-cutting attempts. It’s also really hard for parents to be the “bad guy” and forcibly restrain a distressed and struggling child.
  • Is there a close friend or a family member who might have more success with cutting your child’s nails?
  • Can you talk to your child’s school? Some parents have been very well supported by teachers who have helped to devise de-sensitising programmes or who have introduced Sensory Stories dealing with this issue.

Finger holding techniques

  • Several parents reported that if they hold their child’s finger or toe in a particular firm but gentle way, their child is able to tolerate it much more easily.
  • Some parents found that by gripping a toe or finger tightly, the actual cutting sensation was greatly reduced.
  • The mum who had done the Autism-related sensory course had also learnt a technique whereby she squeezes the tip of the child’s finger or toe just before cutting it, and by doing so, the sensation is greatly reduced. She has her child squeezing her fingers too, taking it in turns to squeeze each other’s fingers and turning it into a little game.

Distraction

  • Music has already been mentioned, but one parent found that when her child stroked a pet rabbit during nail cutting time, the child’s anxiety levels significantly reduced. Favourite toys, or having access to an ipad throughout works well for some children.
  • Parents also reported that singing songs helps, as do a whole variety of tickling games.
  • One parent uses a timer, so her child knows that when the buzzer goes off nail cutting time will finish, and that makes it much more bearable, and gives the child a sense of control.

Motivating with rewards

  • One family has made huge progress over several months by breaking the whole process down into “baby-steps” and introducing rewards such as sweets. Initially the child won a reward simply by allowing a nail file to touch a finger  or toe. This progressed to tolerating the “snipping” noise of the clippers close to their hand or foot.
  • Then they made a reward board out of a tracing of their child’s own feet and hands, and using a velcro token at the end of each finger or toe on the board which can be removed and exchanged for a reward as each nail is cut. Over time, the rewards were reduced so that a whole hand or a whole foot’s worth of nails had to be cut to gain a treat, and eventually a treat was only given when all 20 nails had been cut in one setting.
  • Another parent exchanges a cut nail for a chocolate button.
  • One family use “jelly ring” sweets, placing a ring on each finger. When a finger nail is successfully cut, the child can eat the jelly-ring sweet on that finger

Let them do it themselves

  • Some children, even as young as 6 or 7, are able to cut their own nails under supervision, and find it much easier to tolerate than having a parent do it for them.

A few last thoughts

  • One parent has given up even trying to cut nails altogether, but now her small son will come to her with a slightly torn fingernail and allow her to gently tear it off.
  • You don’t have to attempt to cut all the nails in one marathon sitting – a nail or two a night might be far less stressful for everyone, regardless of the method you’re using.
  • Every child is different, and they experience touch sensations differently. What works for one child may be the last thing another child can tolerate. Keep trying different things, and eventually something will work.
  • For many of our children, control is a huge element – only by having some control over a situation can they feel safe. Think about ways you  can help them be in charge to some degree – maybe an agreement that you will stop the second they ask you to might help.
  • Try and take the stress and conflict out of it – that’s a recipe to make it all much harder for both you and your child. Never make a battle out of something you’re going to have to do again.
  • If it all goes pear shaped, forget about cutting their nails until another day, and use the time for a precious cuddle instead.

Links to some products that might help

Electric Nail File

Baby Manicure Set – including curved scissors and nail clippers

Nail Clippers with Magnifying Glass

Safety Nail Clippers for Babies

Brightly Coloured Nail Files

Heavy Duty Nail Clipper Set

Are you on Facebook? If so, have you seen The Special Parent’s Handbook Page? It’s full of the best information, advice and support for families of special needs children.

I also have another Facebook Page called Coke Floats & Chemo, to offer support, information, news and hope to anyone coping with cancer

I also have another blog called Coke Floats & Chemo Blog? It started out as a blog about how I was dealing with Cancer, but it’s now more about whatever I want to write about

 

Yvonne NewboldYvonne Newbold named by HSJ as a Top 50 Inspirational Women in Healthcare 2014

“The Special Parent’s Handbook” #1 Amazon Best Seller

I’m building this website towards being a childhood disability information and support resource.  Please browse through the pages, and if you leave comments and suggestions or ask questions I’ll do my best to reply as soon as possible.

Thank you.

To buy your copy of “The Special Parent’s Handbook please click on the link to the Amazon page below

Taking the stress out of cutting children’s fingernails
Tagged on:                     

10 thoughts on “Taking the stress out of cutting children’s fingernails

  • Pingback: Cutting fingernails | lovenlearning

  • June 15, 2015 at 12:22 pm
    Permalink

    Brilliant and extremely useful post Yvonne. Off to share. Hayley x

    Reply
  • June 15, 2015 at 2:25 pm
    Permalink

    Thank you Hayley, hope it helps! Take care, Yvonne xx

    Reply
  • June 26, 2015 at 1:01 pm
    Permalink

    Thank you for your dedication and time spent collating such useful advice.

    Reply
    • June 26, 2015 at 5:12 pm
      Permalink

      Thank you Roberta, I really appreciate your lovely comment. Yvonne xx

      Reply
  • June 27, 2015 at 10:02 pm
    Permalink

    My child had difficulties around nail cutting, we took it in turns to cut a bit off, using a magnifer clipper, it took 2 hours to cut 3 toenails, but we achieved, now he sets a date in month usually 5th and cuts them himself.

    Reply
    • June 29, 2015 at 2:05 am
      Permalink

      Hi Carmel, thank you for reading this and for taking the time to leave a comment. Two hours! Goodness, that must have been really difficult for all of you, and it must have taken a huge amount of determination to get them cut. I’m glad that things are so much better now and he is in control – I think they cope better if they are able to do it themselves. A magnifier clipper – I’ll have to look them up and maybe suggest that on here too – thank you for telling me about them. Take care, hope your week is good, Yvonne

      Reply
  • March 4, 2017 at 9:37 pm
    Permalink

    It’s so good to know we’re not alone! Once my son was 6 I got a battery operated nail filer (naked nails) and it’s now part of his morning routine to do it himself. You do have to supervise for safety, and it’s a bit noisy. But if the noise isn’t a problem for your child, this has been a godsend for us.

    Reply
    • March 4, 2017 at 11:56 pm
      Permalink

      Hi Andrea, I’m so pleased you’ve found a solution that your little boy is happy with too, and thank you for sharing it with us. Hope things continue to go well. Very best wishes, Yvonne

      Reply
  • April 19, 2017 at 8:42 am
    Permalink

    Hi Yvonne, a big thank you for putting the above information on here,when my son was younger we always had trouble with his cutting of his toenails etc ,but I found that my son dealt with my mum doing it for him ,the above products look great for him now as he’s a teenager,I will definitely be looking to purchase one of the items above thanks again for your help xx

    Reply

Please let me know what you think

%d bloggers like this: