Teeth Grinding in Children: Causes, Effects, and Treatments

Your child is snuggled into bed, and as you peek in, you hear not peaceful sighing, but… grinding? Bruxism, or repetitive jaw muscle activity, occurs in approximately 20% of children, according to the Bruxism Association. The number may be higher, but it often goes undetected until wear is visible.

Bruxism usually manifests as teeth grinding, but can include clenching or thrusting of the jaw. Children most often grind while asleep, but it can happen while they are awake as well. Below, we’ll outline a few of the causes of bruxism, the effects, and possible treatments.

Why Does My Child Grind Her Teeth?

When infants are teething, they will often start grinding their gums together, presumably to relieve the pain. In most kids, this behavior stops soon after the first few teeth erupt, but for some, it continues. Pediatric dentists suggest giving a teething baby something to chew for relief, as opposed to grinding. The variety that can be frozen seems to be the best best, helping to numb the pain.

Sleep bruxing

Bruxism is classified as a sleep disorder by the American Association of Sleep Medicine (AASM). It is both the cause of and caused by disruptions in sleep. Sleep researchers have found that there is a correlation between obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and bruxism. Enlarged tonsils or adenoids, which are common in kids, can cause OSA, and this causes disruptions where the child is in a more aroused state. Every time this happens, the jaw muscles involuntarily clench and chew.

There is some debate about whether or not misaligned teeth cause grinding, but it seems that the majority of experts don’t think there’s a link. There just isn’t enough evidence to support this.

Awake bruxing

Tooth grinding and jaw clenching are seen more in children while they are awake. Experts believe that the cause of awake bruxism is more psychological than physiological. If a child is stressed or anxious, this may manifest as bruxism. Stress can also be a factor in sleep bruxism, but it is less likely that awake bruxing has other causes.

What Will Happen if My Child Grinds Their Teeth?

Common Complaints

The most common complaints from kids who grind their teeth are:

  • Headaches
  • Jaw or face pain
  • Earaches
  • Shoulder stiffness
  • Being tired

The first three of these symptoms are pretty straightforward; if you grind and clench, you’ll be sore. But, shoulder stiffness and being tired? These are both related to the frequent arousals from sleep. No matter the cause of sleep arousal, the body still reacts in the same ways: increased heart rate, breathing and muscle activity. The reason it’s the shoulder, in particular, is because the jaw muscles work in conjunction with the neck and shoulder muscles. All of this can lead to poor sleep.

Deeper Problems

In addition to the things that your child might be telling you, bruxism can cause problems that may go unnoticed until their dentist notices the damage. The teeth can wear abnormally, most commonly the incisors and canines rubbing at an angle on each other. Teeth can even fracture if grinding is excessive or goes untreated for long enough.

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems can be caused by and exacerbated by bruxism. In worst case scenarios teeth can come loose, gums can recess, and this can lead to early tooth loss.

What Can Be Done?

Getting Professional Help

The causes of bruxism are varied, so the treatments are as well. If there is an underlying problem that is causing the bruxism, such as enlarged tonsils, you should start there. If your child is experiencing any of the symptoms discussed above, talk to their pediatrician about it, and they can discuss treatment options.

Pediatric dentistry is the first line of defense when it comes to bruxism. Your child’s tooth checkup may be the first time you hear about the grinding. The dentist will be able to see signs of abnormal wear and can offer a mouth guard for your child to wear. The mouth guard fits in between the top and bottom teeth, preventing contact in the event of clenching and grinding.

Sleep is the Best Medicine

We all can agree that kids need sleep. The AASM tells us that preschoolers need from 11 to 14 hours a night. Here are some things you can do to help relax your child at bedtime, whether they brux or not:
Reduce stimulation at bedtime, both screens, and caffeine.
Establish a bedtime routine; this allows your child’s body to recognize it’s time to wind down.
Be consistent and set a regular bedtime.

The Bottom Line

Attending to your child’s bruxism now will save them from long-term problems. It will also improve their present quality of life as it will afford them better sleep, which leads to improved overall health and happiness. If your child is grinding his or her teeth, schedule an appointment with your child’s dentist to discuss your options.

 

Kylie Hemswort
Larry Hayman is a freelance writer and has been a Certified Physician Assistant for over five years. He enjoys writing about new developments in medicine and discussing cutting-edge research across a number of medical fields. In his free time, he hikes the mountains near his North Carolina home.