How to Trim Baby's Nails Without Freaking Out

Nothing incites fear in new parents quite like the thought of sharp objects around baby's delicate fingers. But don't panic—our experts give you advice on the best ways to avoid drawing blood.

Cutting Baby's Nails EmiliaUngur/Shutterstock
You're going to have to trim baby's nails, and it will be terrifying. It's one of those things no one tells you about, and then you realize you have no idea how to do it and start panicking about cutting your little one's finger. But you can't just ignore your baby's nails, says Molly Broder, MD, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, New York. "Babies can very easily scratch themselves if their nails are too long, especially during the first few months of life, as they don't have a lot of control over their arms," she says.

When they're first born, you can put off trimming nails by dressing your baby in long-sleeve onesies with fold-over cuffs, or using mittens or socks on tiny hands. "But as they get older and begin to use their hands to grab and explore, it is better to keep the nails trimmed," Dr. Broder says. Pamela Schoemer, MD, a pediatrician at Children's Community Pediatrics in western Pennsylvania, says untrimmed nails can result in skin infections from scratches, or even scratched eyes! Not to mention that you might get clawed as well while holding or feeding your baby.

If you notice baby's nails feel sharp, it's time to trim them. "Fingernails initially grow quite quickly and may need to be trimmed a few times per week," Dr. Schoemer says. "Toenails are more slow growing and may need this care only a few times per month." Partner up with your spouse for extra hands—babies can be wiggly! "Making it part of a calming routine, such as bathtime, may be best for some families, while others may prefer to complete the task while the baby is asleep," she says. "Whenever you choose, make sure there is adequate light and you have a firm hold on the baby's hand."

OK, so now you know when to do it, but the question remains: How? You've got some options, all with pros and cons. "Whichever you choose, you will want to trim fingernails along the natural curve of the nail and toenails straight across," Dr. Schoemer says. "In both cases, be careful not to trim so short that you invade the nail bed." Dr. Broder says to leave a little bit of white.

Dos

  • Clippers: This is the go-to way to trim baby's nails for many moms, likely because it's how we're used to cutting our own, and can be used on babies older than one month. "You can easily see what you are doing and can cut the nail appropriately," Dr. Broder says. The downside? "There is always the risk of accidentally cutting your baby's finger." Regular mini-clippers work well, although some moms we talked to raved about clippers that cut from side to side, making pinched skin less likely.
  • Scissors: Cutting with scissors sounds intimidating, but some moms swear by it, especially if they are "baby scissors" with a blunt edge. Scissors give you a little more control than clippers. But, "they are more expensive than clippers and files, and there is a risk of cutting your baby's finger," Dr. Broder says. If this happens, don't feel guilty. "We've all been there—it's hard to cut baby nails!" she says. "Take a deep breath first, then wash the finger with soap and water, and apply pressure with a tissue or towel for a few minutes until it stops bleeding. There is no need for a bandage, as that can be a choking hazard."
  • Filing: This is the best way to trim baby's nails if you are looking to avoid blood. "I recommend using a soft emery board, especially early on [under one month old] because there is no chance of clipping the skin," Dr. Schoemer says. Some moms we talked to said filing didn't work well for newborns because their nails are so soft, but this risk-free method could also be beneficial for squirmy older babies. Plus, "nail files are easy to find and inexpensive," Dr. Broder says.
  • Electric files: If regular files aren't working but you still want no chance of cutting, an electric file might be the way to go—although they have a heftier price tag. "I do not see any particular safety concerns about them, and some do provide a light source or magnifier," Dr. Schoemer says. "It's a gadget that may make some aspects easier, but isn't significantly beneficial." Dr. Broder says they're a good option, just expensive.

Don'ts

  • Biting off: When you have that little baby's hand in yours and you're staring at nails that need to be trimmed, you will get the urge to just bite them off. Although some moms we talked to admitted this was their preferred method, our experts don't advise it because you could introduce germs. "Some parents may be tempted, but this is never recommended because it may cause a serious viral or bacterial infection," Dr. Schoemer says.
  • Tearing off: This is another no-no. "It can be easy to tear the nail too short, which can lead to an ingrown nail," Dr. Broder says. "Ingrown nails can be painful and can get infected."

Some moms prefer certain ways of trimming to others, so you may have to try a couple of methods to see what works best for you. Whatever you decide, it will be scary at first but get easier with practice. You've got this, mama!

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