Nail Care Tips for Sensory-Sensitive Children

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Written by Sandra Ellis, Student OT, McMaster University

Recently, I was talking to a parent who was having trouble getting her sensory-sensitive child to let her cut his nails. This prompted me to wonder what kinds of parent-friendly strategies I could offer parents facing the same challenge. Many kids with sensory challenges can be adverse to personal hygiene activities like nail care because their super-sensitive finger tips may perceive the sensations involved in the activity as uncomfortable or painful. This reaction can result in a really stressful experience, both for the child and the parent. So, what’s a parent to do? Here are a few suggestions that may help you to conquer the nail cutting beast:

  • Try using alternative tools like nail scissors or baby nail clippers – these tools can be easier on the finger nails, creating a less of a sensory impact. They are also smaller, so less of the nail is being cut at one time, which may also be less stimulating for the child. Additionally, these tools can have a less intimidating appearance which might help avoid triggering any anxiety in your child.
  • Try cutting your child’s nails after a shower or bath, or soak the nails with some soothing aromatherapy oils – your child’s nails will be wet and soft, rather than dry and hard which will make the cutting process quicker and easier and may be less of a shock to your child.
  • Give your child’s hands, fingers, feet and toes and gentle massage or gently press on the centre of the nail before cutting – deep pressure can help to reduce overall sensitivity.
  • Cut only 1 or 2 nails per day – This way, nail cutting can be a short experience at first and becomes an everyday activity. The child will get more practice having his or her nails cut and can become desensitized over time. Once your child gets used to this, you can gradually build up to more and more nails at a time!
  • Model the activity for your child – let your child watch you clip your own nails, this way the child knows it is a normal and safe activity.
  • Stay calm and comfortable – It is important for you to stay happy and calm during the process too! If you are frustrated or upset, your child may pick up on this and it could trigger a negative response from them. More importantly, they may come to associate the activity with these negative feelings which could make nail care even more challenging in the long run. So, remember to keep a calm voice, calm and steady breathing, and calm controlled movements. You can even try to make the activity fun by singing a soothing song or counting softly during the process!
  • If your child is old enough, try teaching them to cut their own nails – this may reduce the surprise or anxiety of not knowing what to expect.

Grooming is important and can be a major challenge for kids with sensory issues, but with some patience and a few strategies, the process can be made a little easier. Nail care is just one of many personal hygiene activities that can be difficult for our sensory kids. An Occupational Therapist can help determine the best way to approach sensory issues with your kiddo and can provide strategies and work with kids directly to overcome these underlying sensory challenges.

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