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A Not-Terrifying Way to Cut an Infant’s Nails

Photo: Adriane Quinlan

Some parenting rites feel more like Fear Factor challenges, and cutting a newborn’s nails would make the finale. First, there’s the physical challenge of holding a baby still (not possible), the moral challenge of considering yourself a good person through baby screams (not possible), and finally, the high stakes. When you miss, even just slightly, you are dealing with tears and blood. Baby blood. Yes, the tiny, nubby little corner of a thumb will heal in a day or two, but you will worry that you have conditioned your child to fear having their nails cut and taught them that the person they trust most in the world will also cause them pain.

I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with my baby’s nails right away, but it turns out nails grow in the womb, and my son was born with Jen Shah–esque talons. I also didn’t realize that my son would be hardwired to use these nails to scratch his face. In newborn photos, my son looked like he’d gone backpacking through a brush forest.

I was afraid to rectify the situation myself because of what my friend had told me about the first time her son got his nails trimmed. She’d entrusted the task to a postpartum doula, who had confidently gone in with nail scissors — a professional baby tool for a professional baby wrangler. But the nails were so paper-thin that they were actually hard to see, and the doula mistook the tips of three of his fingers for nails before the baby started wailing “like he was on fire,” my friend remembers.

At the hospital, I asked the nurse how to cut my son’s nails. “Try a nail file,” she said. I love nurses almost as much as I love the allure of a simple solution. But there’s a reason why the intellectually underemployed receptionist of ’90s sitcoms was portrayed as perpetually filing her nails: The task takes forever. You are rubbing a soft stone against keratin, like a caveman attempting to twist sticks into fire. Between pumping, washing bottles, not sleeping, pumping, washing bottles, and not sleeping, I was spending 30 minutes a day LARPing as a beautician.

I read about the Electric Nail File Drill on a Reddit forum for new moms and, unsure it would even work, got the most basic model on Amazon ($9.99). There’s also an $18.99 version from the New Zealand brand Haakaa, which seems identical, except that it’s pink, and a $34.99 version by the Frida Baby brand, which seems to have exactly the same features in a more streamlined white tube. The fanciest model I could find — $49.99, from OLABABY — does the same job but charges with a USB cable and, while designed to be more comfortable to hold, also looks more confusing to use. The cheaper model that I went for was easy to figure out: When it arrived, I popped in an AA battery and clicked a tab that powers a mechanism that causes a circular nail file, lodged in the head, to spin like a pottery wheel. You can adjust the speed, and mine came with five heads of increasing roughness to use as the baby gets older and nails get less soft and sensitive.

I learned to use the file by sitting the baby up, leaning him against me, and honing in on the hand that wasn’t wedged against my chest, pulling the machine around each nail, one by one. At first, I would lean in to peer at each nail, but I acquired a certain feel for the snag of a nail edge and could work quickly, pulling the file around a hand in 90 seconds. I’d even go for a second round, catching the corners of thumbnails, the edge of a tiny pinky. I felt less like a zhlubby mom than some kind of sculptor, smoothing down perfect half-moons. As the baby’s nails got stronger and I learned that nails, like wood or corduroy, have a grain, I started using a feature I’d ignored, which lets you change the direction of the spin. As you go up one side of a curved nail with the electric file, a clockwise spin feels smooth, whereas going the other direction might catch at the grain, causing the file — which automatically stops when pressure is applied — to stutter off and on. In my quest for perfection, I didn’t feel bad if I caught some skin: The newborn file head is as gentle as a dry sponge, and the effectiveness seems to come not by how harsh the grain is, but by how many passes a few spins can do. The baby didn’t seem to feel anything at all.

I started to file his nails in the car when I was bored and the baby, constrained by seat belts, looked like a salon client waiting for his manicurist. I threw the nail file in day totes and vacation bags and, at one point, when I thought I lost it, I overnighted a second file on Amazon. When I found the one I thought I’d lost, I kept it as backup — it was nice to have one file permanently stationed near our projector so I could sand my son’s nails down while watching 100 Foot Wave. (It’s almost designed for working in the dark: Turning on the spin mechanism also turns on a tiny LED, which shines down like a reading light on the nail you’re working on.)

When my son was about 9 months old, that light became a problem. He considers every spinning, illuminated object to be a toy. What was this thing? At first, I could distract him by putting an actual toy in his other hand, or throwing on Sesame Street. But when he was about a year old, he started getting upset when I pulled the file away. One night, my husband asked an obvious question: Had our son just outgrown the file? Was it just a crutch, a way for us to avoid one of the most difficult tasks of parenting? Were we ready for the clippers? Was he ready for college?

We hauled the clippers out of the crypt of hand-me-downs we didn’t know how to use. My husband, brimming with confidence, went for it. The first attempt, at the very first nail, elicited a scream. He’d sliced the edge of the skin off the corner of the baby’s index finger. There was blood on our comforter, and we were fighting about whether the Band-Aid was cutting off our son’s circulation, or whether it was so loose that he would eat it in his sleep, choke, and die. Only when it healed and the Band-Aid was gone did I return to the electric nail file — which I still use, at 18 months. He’s still curious, but these days, I drug him with a full meal, a TV show, and maybe a bottle before I go for it. (Some of the electric nail files advertise the LED-light feature as a way to do your child’s hand while they sleep, an option I find vaguely creepy, even as I consider doing that next time.)

The file is on my shortlist for any new parents, but not because I like helping people — it’s because I’m selfish. I would like my son to grow up in a world where we severely cut emissions, snuff out fascism, and give all of our children smooth, pared-back nails. The other week, we picked our son up from day care to find scratches on his back. One looked particularly deep — a dark-red arc. I made my husband ask the teacher what happened. He said she apologized, saying something like “some of the other parents aren’t as good at keeping the nails short.”

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A Not-Terrifying Way to Cut an Infant’s Nails