I remember the precise moment when I realized my first baby was all mine, totally my responsibility, not something I could return or buzz a nurse to help with. It was when he first needed his finger and toe nails cut.
In all of my reading and child-care classes, I somehow missed the lesson about the unique horror of cutting your child’s nails for the first time. I suppose I had seen the tiny baby nail clippers in the multiple first aid kits we had stacked neatly on the dresser. But I hadn’t imagined actually using them on a real, live, wriggly, screaming baby.
So there we were on Day 1 at home, having slept not a wink the night before as my milk came in and my son’s colic began to make itself known. Even in my fog, I couldn’t ignore that his nails were like little switchblades, slicing everything he touched. My arms, my chest, even his own cheeks. They desperately needed a trim.
“Already?” I thought to myself. “He was born, like, five minutes ago.” I actually looked around, searching for someone else to take on this unpleasant task. Then I remembered it’s me. It’s my job. So I fished out the clippers, and as my husband held our baby, I proceeded to slowly, carefully clip, taking a slice out of my 3-day-old son’s finger and causing him to bleed an absurd amount.
You can learn a lot about someone’s parenting style by how they trim their baby’s nails. There are the crunchy moms who suggest chewing them off, saying the nails are usually soft and flexible and the baby won’t care. There are the got-it-all-together moms who somehow knew to buy baby emery boards to gently file the nails down. There are the smug moms of easy babies who trim their nails while their infants sleep, undoubtedly through the night. And then there are the idiot moms like me, who actually think using nail clippers on a newborn will result in anything other than a bloodbath.
After texting friends and asking Google, I turned for advice from my bible, “Caring for Your Baby and Young Child.” I tried to take comfort in its declaration that for new parents, nail clipping can seem like “a monumental and nerve-racking task.” (It also warned against biting the nails because of the risk of something called herpetic whitlow, “a finger or thumb infection caused by the herpes simplex virus.” So I scratched that suggestion.) What I mostly took away from the book was that baby’s fingernails grow quite quickly and may need to be cut twice a week. Twice. A. Week. How would I survive this?
Like most new parenting tasks, the only way to get through it is to just get through it. My husband and I white-knuckled it for a few weeks, eventually realizing that the nails were softer after baths and that clipping them in the tub meant baby was distracted. Then, suddenly, we were pros and forgot what a fuss we once made about something as silly as nails. By our second child, nails were a nonissue.
But as you quickly learn as a parent, what works for a while won’t work forever. Bouncing your child to sleep becomes ineffective and you have to sleep train. Bananas, once a favorite fruit, get tossed out of the high chair. Your late sleeper becomes an early bird, your independent preschooler develops separation anxiety. Just when you get used to a routine, the sitter quits or the school year ends or your work schedule changes.
And so it was, for us, with fingernails. When he was around 3 or 4, my son became terrified of having his nails trimmed. He would scream so loudly that I was certain the neighbors would phone the authorities. We tried food bribes, screen-time bribes, diverting his attention, even cutting them in his sleep. (Surprise! He woke up!) It was such an upsetting affair that we would avoid cutting them altogether, making me certain his teachers would be the ones phoning the authorities.
And then, like magic, he outgrew it. He just stopped screaming and carrying on. I wish I could credit my amazing parenting, my empathic mothering, but honestly we did nothing differently. The anxiety was just — gone. Now an 8-year-old, he actually wants to have his nails clipped. It’s a sweet post-bath ritual, him wrapped in a Yoda towel while we gingerly trim his nails. (Okay, he also gets to watch baseball or soccer highlights, so there’s just a touch of bribery.)
So I’ll enjoy this drama-free nail trimming while it lasts, knowing it probably won’t last. A few nights ago, in fact, he had a question for me. “Mom,” he asked, “when can I cut my own nails?”
Carrie Melago is a journalist and mother of two boys living in Brooklyn. She’s an editor at Chalkbeat, the education news network, and has worked at the Wall Street Journal and New York Daily News. Follow her on Twitter @carriemelago.