Your baby’s fingernails and toenails – how to care for them

Your baby’s fingernails and toenails – how to care for them

Parents are often amazed at the size of their new baby’s finger and toenails.     These tiny little deposits of hardened protein  or ‘keratin’  can seem impossibly small, but also long, especially when a baby is overdue. They can also appear translucent or pink, like little shells attached to the ends of their fingers and toes.

What’s the point of fingernails and toenails?

Fingernails and toenails serve an important purpose, especially when we consider our evolutionary past. All primates have fingernails - a variation from claws, though as our mammal ancestors evolved, fingernails took the place of claws.  Even in newborns, nails help to grip, boost finger sensitivity and protect their fingertips. As adults, fingernails can be another way to display our style and fashion preferences. But for babies, fingernails and toenails are purely about function.  

How do I cut my baby’s fingernails?

You don’t need to do anything  special, though their nails may need trimming when they get long and sharp. Young babies can’t control their hand movements and can easily scratch their face. The best time to cut their nails can be after a bath, when they’re sleeping or feeding and when you have plenty of light.

Ask someone to help you, or to keep your baby distracted. Baby’s nails can be almost transparent and it’s easy to cut the skin around the nail edge.

  • Use baby nail scissors or a purpose designed nail trimmer with blunt, rounded tips.
  • Gently pull your baby’s finger pad away from their nail before cutting.
  • Cut only the free edge of the nail. This is the white part at the end of the body of the nail.
  • Trim their nails straight across to prevent them growing inwards.
  • You could also use a nail file or emery board, but keep this just for your baby’s nails.

Some parents choose to bite their baby’s nails however, it’s more precise and hygienic to use baby nail scissors, or a nail file to do the job. 

How do I cut my baby’s toenails?    

  • Toenails grow much more slowly than fingernails. You won’t need to trim your baby’s toenails as often as you do their fingernails.
  • Toenails can grow flat on the nail plate which can make it hard to cut the nail.
  • Toenails can appear almost translucent and it can be hard to see the free nail edge which needs cutting. If in doubt, don’t cut their toenails and just leave them to grow until it’s obvious they need cutting.

5 top nail tips

  1. Cut, trim or file your baby’s nails when they get long or sharp. Individual nails can grow at different rates, you may not to cut all of their nails at the same time.
  2. Ask someone to help you when you’re trimming your baby’s nails and make sure you have good light.
  3. Only cut or trim the free edge of the finger or toe nail which is not part of the body of the nail.
  4. If you’re in doubt that a nail needs cutting, leave it to grow a little longer.
  5. Cut your baby’s nails when they’re sleeping, drowsy or feeding. This is when they’re most likely to be relaxed and will hold their hand/feet still.

Written for GAIA by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse, May 2022.