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Bruxism (Teeth Grinding or Clenching)

Medically reviewed by: Melanie L. Pitone, MD

What Is Bruxism?

Bruxism is the medical term for grinding the teeth or clenching the jaw. Many kids have it, but most outgrow it without lasting problems. 

What Causes Bruxism?

Kids might grind their teeth for a few reasons, including: 

  • teeth that aren’t aligned properly
  • pain, such as from an earache or teething
  • stress; for instance, from worry about a test or a change in routine. Even arguing with parents and siblings can cause enough stress to prompt teeth grinding or jaw clenching.
  • medical reasons, like hyperactivity, cerebral palsy, or some types of medicines

What Problems Can Happen?

Many times bruxism (BRUKS-iz-em) isn’t noticed and doesn’t cause problems. Often, it's more bothersome to other family members because of the grinding sound.

But sometimes it can cause:

  • headaches 
  • worn down tooth enamel or chipped teeth
  • sensitive teeth
  • face, ear, or jaw pain

How Is Bruxism Diagnosed?

Many kids who grind their teeth don’t know they do. Often, siblings or parents are the ones who notice 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 grinds their teeth, visit the dentist, who will check the teeth for chipped enamel and unusual wear and tear, and spray air and water on them to check for sensitivity.

If the teeth are damaged, the dentist may ask a few questions to look what’s causing the grinding, such as misaligned teeth or stress. 

How Is Bruxism Treated?

If teeth-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 mouthpieces athletes wear to protect their teeth. A night guard can take some getting used to, but it usually helps quickly.

How Can Parents Help?

Whatever the cause of bruxism, help kids relax before bedtime — they might take a warm bath or shower, listen to a few minutes of soothing music, or read a book.

For bruxism from stress, ask about what's upsetting your child and find a way to help. For example, a kid who worries about being away from home for a first camping trip might need reassurance that mom or dad will be nearby if needed.

If the issue is more complicated, such as moving to a new town, talk to your child about it 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 can’t sleep or acts differently than usual, work with your dentist or doctor to find the cause of the stress and make a plan to help.

Most kids outgrow bruxism when they lose their baby teeth. In the meantime, routine dental visits can help find and treat bruxism.

Medically reviewed by: Melanie L. Pitone, MD
Date reviewed: January 2021