When you look in on your sleeping child, you want to hear the sounds of sweet dreams:
easy breathing and perhaps an occasional sigh. But some parents hear the harsher sounds
of gnashing and grinding teeth, called bruxism, which is common in
Bruxism is the medical term for the grinding of teeth or the clenching of jaws.
Many kids have it (2 to 3 out of every 10 will grind or clench, experts say),
but most outgrow it. Bruxism often happens during deep sleep phases or when kids are under
Causes of Bruxism
Experts aren't always sure why bruxism happens. In some cases, kids may grind because
the top and bottom teeth aren't aligned properly. Others do it as a response to pain,
such as from an earache or teething.
Kids might grind their teeth as a way to ease the pain, just as they might rub a sore
muscle. Many kids outgrow these fairly common causes for grinding.
Stress — usually nervous
tension or anger — is another cause. For instance, a child might worry about
a test at school or a change in routine (a new sibling or a new teacher). Even arguing
with parents and siblings can cause enough stress to prompt teeth grinding or jaw
Some kids who are hyperactive also have bruxism. And sometimes kids with other
medical conditions (such as cerebral
palsy) or who take certain medicines can develop bruxism.
Effects of Bruxism
Many cases of bruxism go undetected with no ill effects, while others cause
headaches or earaches. Usually, though, it's more bothersome to other family members because
of the grinding sound.
In some cases, nighttime grinding and clenching can wear down tooth enamel, chip
teeth, increase temperature sensitivity, and cause severe facial pain and jaw problems,
such as temporomandibular joint disease
(TMJ). Most kids who grind, however, don't have TMJ problems unless their grinding
and clenching happen a lot.
Lots of kids who grind their teeth aren't even aware of it, so it's often siblings
or parents who identify the problem.
Some signs to watch for:
grinding noises when your child is sleeping
complaints of a sore jaw or face after waking up in the morning
pain with chewing
If you think your child is grinding his or her teeth, visit the dentist,
who will examine the teeth for chipped enamel and unusual wear and tear, and spray
air and water on the teeth to check for unusual sensitivity.
If damage is found, the dentist may ask your child a few questions, such as:
How do you feel before bed?
Are you worried about anything at home or school?
Are you angry with someone?
What do you do before bed?
The exam will help the dentist see whether the cause is anatomical (misaligned
teeth) or psychological (stress), and come up with an effective treatment plan.
Most kids outgrow bruxism, but a combination of parental observation and dental
visits can help keep the problem in check until they do.
In cases where the grinding and clenching make a child's face and jaw sore or damage
the teeth, dentists may prescribe a special night guard. Molded to a child's teeth,
the night guard is similar to the protective mouthpieces worn by athletes. Though
a mouthpiece can take some getting used to, positive results happen quickly.
Helping Kids With Bruxism
Whether the cause is physical or psychological, kids might be able to control bruxism
by relaxing before bedtime — for example, by taking a warm bath or shower, listening
to a few minutes of soothing music, or reading a book.
For bruxism that's caused by stress, ask about what's upsetting your child and
find a way to help. For example, a kid who is worried about being away from home for
a first camping trip might need reassurance that mom or dad will be nearby if
If the issue is more complicated, such as moving to a new town, discuss your child's
concerns and try to ease any fears. If you're concerned, talk to your doctor.
In rare cases, basic stress relievers aren't enough to stop bruxism. If your child
has trouble sleeping or is acting differently than usual, your dentist or doctor may
suggest further evaluation. This can help find the cause of the stress and a proper
course of treatment.
How Long Does Bruxism Last?
Most kids stop grinding when they lose their baby teeth. However, a few kids do
continue to grind into adolescence. And if the bruxism is caused by stress, it will
continue until the stress eases.
Because some bruxism is a child's natural reaction to growth and development, most
cases can't be prevented. Stress-induced bruxism can be avoided, though. So talk with
kids regularly about their feelings and help them deal with stress. Taking kids for
routine dental visits can help find and treat bruxism.