Watching your child peacefully sleeping is a very satisfying experience. Listening to their light, even breathing, you know they’re off in dreamland, and everything’s right with the world. In some cases, however, you might hear an unusual sound that drowns out your child’s breathing. In fact, this rather loud noise happens when children grind teeth. Your child may be affected by teeth grinding (bruxism), a fairly common condition that impacts children of varied ages.
Teeth Grinding (Bruxism) in Children
A Brief Look at Bruxism
Children who exhibit bruxism symptoms will grind, clench, or gnash their teeth – often without realizing it. They can display bruxism behavior while awake ( awake bruxism) or asleep (sleep bruxism). In fact, sleep bruxism is regarded as a type of sleep-linked movement disorder.
If you haven’t previously heard of bruxism in children, you’ll be surprised to learn that approximately 3 out of 10 children grind teeth before they turn 5 years of age. In many cases, grinding teeth began during teething, or was caused by faulty tooth alignment. During this period, baby teeth or permanent teeth could be affected. Most of the time, the preschoolers will outgrow the bruxism behavior before age 6.
Why Children Grind Teeth
Your child’s tooth-grinding behavior can have both physical and psychological origins. On the physical side, teething and improper tooth alignment may cause symptoms for toddlers or preschoolers. Earaches and ear infections can trigger tooth grinding in both younger and older children. Kids with specific medical conditions, such as cerebral palsy, can develop bruxism as a secondary issue. And, bruxism can be a side effect of certain medications.
Stress, along with some psychological conditions, can also play a major role in the development of children’s bruxism. Maybe your child has recently become especially irritable, resulting in disagreements with you or their siblings. Perhaps your older child doesn’t like their new teacher, or is concerned about an upcoming test at school. Or, your hyperactive child may have developed bruxism as a secondary condition and you may see your child grinds teeth sometimes.
Tooth Grinding: Uncovering the Cause
Chances are, your child doesn’t know he (or she) has been grinding teeth. Maybe you recently noticed their puzzling behavior, or their brother or sister brought it to your attention. If you suspect your child is affected by bruxism, look for other signs that often accompany this teeth-grinding behavior.
For example, maybe your child complains that they have facial pain or jaw pain every morning. Perhaps chewing their food has become increasingly painful. And, maybe some of their teeth have become sensitive to hot or cold liquids or foods. After hearing about these disturbing symptoms, you’re concerned about your child’s oral health.
To discover the source of these puzzling symptoms, ask your child’s dentist for help. Schedule a diagnostic dental visit, during which the dentist will carefully examine your child’s teeth for unusual wear and tear. She’ll also check for chipped tooth enamel or cracks in individual teeth. And, she’ll look for unusually sensitive teeth by lightly spraying water and air over your child’s teeth.
Let’s say the dentist finds some tooth damage. This damage may indicate the presence of misaligned teeth that could cause your child discomfort and affect their dental health.
To see if stress might also be a factor, the dentist may casually ask your child a few simple questions. For example, the dentist may inquire about your child’s pre-bedtime feelings and rituals as well as bedtime routine. She might also ask if the child has recently experienced nightmares.
This healthcare professional may also ask if your child is concerned about upsetting conflicts at home or school. Your child’s answers will help the dentist to determine what’s behind your child’s teeth-grinding behavior, and formulate a treatment plan that may help resolve the issue.
Effects of Bruxism on Children
If your child is affected by bruxism, know that the condition can have a broad range of effects. At one end of the spectrum, your child may personally have no negative impacts, although the grinding noise may highly annoy the rest of the family.
On the other hand, your child’s frequent tooth grinding can erode their tooth enamel, cause chipped or cracked teeth, and cause sensitivity to hot or cold liquids or foods. These compromised teeth can negatively affect your child’s dental health and overall oral health.
A dull headache, facial pain, and sore jaws are also possibilities, along with development of temporomandibular joint disease (TMJ). However, the latter condition rarely emerges unless the child’s bruxism is an almost-constant occurrence. Finally, note that bruxism has sometimes been associated with sleep disorders. Your child’s doctor can provide guidance on this issue.
Helping Your Child with Bruxism
After your child’s dentist and/or doctor have identified the cause of your child’s bruxism, help your child to get some relief. If stress is the culprit, determine why he or she is upset, and help them work through their distress. Keep the channels of communication open.
When bedtime approaches, use several calming strategies to help your child relax and unwind. First, don’t let them watch television, movies, or video games prior to bedtime. Make caffeine-containing foods or beverages off limits during the evening. Avoid giving your child medications with stimulants, including decongestants and cough medicines.
Instead, establish a nightly routine that includes a warm bath or shower prior to bedtime. Relaxing music or a pleasing book may also be helpful.
Follow the same routine every night, and reserve up to a half-hour to get your child settled for a restful night’s sleep.
Get Guidance from Your Doctor and Dentist
If your stress relief program hasn’t brought positive results, ask your child’s dentist and doctor for professional assistance. First, ask your doctor if a child-appropriate sleep medicine might be a solution.
If your child’s bruxism has negatively affected their teeth, and has caused sore jaw muscles and facial pain, ask your child’s dentist for help. Specifically, inquire about the suitability of a custom-fitted mouth guard or night guard.
Similar to sports mouth guards, this device is carefully molded to your child’s mouth, and will prevent further damage to their teeth. Although your child may take some time to get used to the mouth guard, it should stop bruxism’s tooth-damaging effects in their tracks.
For children who may need a night guard, we do NOT recommend ordering a night guard online. Instead, you should seek a solution from your child's dentist directly. Since children are still rapidly developing, their teeth and jaw bones are growing as well, and a night guard for a child would require frequent adjustments to allow for that growth.