If you have noticed your toddler grinding their teeth, you may be wondering if the behaviour is expected. Of course, the unpleasant sound can cause concern, but usually, it’s safe. Only in some cases do you have to step in.
Learn why toddlers grind their teeth and when you need to take action for your little one.
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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 ten will grind or clench, experts say), but most outgrow it.
Bruxism often happens during deep sleep phases or when kids are under stress.
Many children grind their teeth at some stage. Some children clench their jaws quite firmly. Others grind so hard that it makes a noise.
Children who grind their teeth at night won’t usually wake up because of the noise they’re making – but other people in the room might! Teeth-grinding is also called bruxism.
What’s Behind My Toddler’s Teeth Grinding?
You may notice your little one constantly moving their mouth while sleeping.
This can be accompanied by sounds of clicking or grinding when the teeth rub together. These are all signs that your little one may be scratching their teeth.
Teeth grinding or bruxism is something that can happen across the lifespan for different reasons.
According to the University of Michigan Health System, children may begin to grind their teeth at six months or later when their teeth start to come in and again at age 5 when their permanent teeth start arriving.
Adults may grind their teeth because they are stressed or nervous. However, the causes are usually more related to testing out their new chompers when it comes to toddlers.
While most toddlers outgrow this habit, there are some instances when you may need to seek additional treatments to protect your child’s teeth.
What Is Teeth Grinding?
Teeth grinding is known as bruxism by doctors and is very common in children.
It occurs when a person presses their upper or lower jaw down, moving the teeth against one another.
Tooth grinding is not considered a disease, but certain other disorders may make it worse.
Why Do Toddlers Grind Their Teeth?
According to the Nemours Foundation, an estimated 2 to 3 out of every ten children will grind or clench their teeth.
Teeth grinding most commonly happens while your toddler sleeps, but you may notice them doing it during the daytime as well.
Dentists don’t always know the reasons a toddler will grind their teeth. However, some of the reasons can include the following.
- Your toddler’s teeth aren’t aligned properly.
- Your toddler uses it as a way to relieve pain, such as from an aching ear or discomfort from teething.
- The result of certain medical conditions, such as cerebral palsy or medications taken.
In older children, teeth grinding can be a sign of stress or anxiety. An example could be stress related to a change in routine or feeling ill.
Sometimes you or your doctor may not be able to pinpoint the exact cause.
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. However, 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 clenching.
Some hyperactive kids also have bruxism. And sometimes kids with other medical conditions (such as cerebral palsy) or who take certain medicines can develop bruxism.
Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes tooth grinding. However, many factors likely play into a child grinding their teeth.
The Dental Press Journal of Orthodontics explains that experts think that the central nervous systems, the mouth, the sleep-wake cycle, genetics, and the environment are all involved in tooth grinding.
In some cases, there is also a link between sleep disorders and teeth grinding, such as sleep apnea, although that’s more common in adults.
When a toddler’s tooth grinding occurs at night or during Sleep, there may be no cause.
However, for some children, tooth grinding can be caused by periods of stress or anxiety, such as a significant life event or trauma.
Tooth grinding could also be the result of your child experiencing pain.
For instance, if they are teething or have an ear infection, your baby may resort to grinding their teeth as a way to relieve the pain.
Some children may also grind their teeth as a result of misalignment of their teeth.
In most cases, parents will know that their toddler is grinding their teeth only by observing the child do it or by hearing it.
The child, many times, is not even aware that they are doing it.
In some cases, a child will grind their teeth while awake too, and the parent or caregiver can help redirect the child’s attention from the behaviour.
A diagnostic tool called Bitestrip can be used at home to help identify if sleep bruxism is occurring, but most of the time, that device is only used in adults or severe cases.
What Are the Effects of Bruxism?
For the most part, teeth grinding is not considered a harmful habit and one that most toddlers grow out of.
Sometimes the greatest “effect” is a parent worrying about the grinding sound their child is making.
For other children, grinding the teeth can cause jaw pain. While your baby may not be able to tell you that that’s the exact cause of their discomfort, frequently rubbing the jaw can be an indicator.
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).
However, most kids who grind don’t have TMJ problems unless their grinding and clenching happen a lot.
Grinding During Sleep
Tooth grinding during Sleep is referred to as sleep-related bruxism.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), teeth grinding is especially common in children while they sleep, since during Sleep, the muscles of the jaw contract.
If those jaw contractions are too muscular, it can cause grinding.
It can be so loud that you can hear it, but most of the time, if it is happening during Sleep, it is involuntary, meaning your child is not even aware that they are doing it.
Baby teeth grinding tends to occur most often during REM sleep, the second stage of Sleep.
Most of the time, a child grinding their teeth will not wake up during the grinding episode.
Some studies have shown signs of disturbed Sleep during grinding, such as an increased heart rate, called “micro-arousals.”
That means that the child shows signs of stirring awake, although they do not fully awaken.
Doctors aren’t sure if the tooth grinding results from the arousal or if the arousal happens because of the tooth grinding, so a lot of nighttime teeth grinding is still a mystery.
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Caring for Your Child’s Teeth
The severity of tooth grinding varies widely.
Some children will experience minor episodes, with only a few instances of teeth grinding throughout the night. In contrast, others will experience severe bruxism and have hundreds of occurrences throughout the night.
As you can imagine, the more severe the tooth grinding and the more frequent the episodes occur, the higher the risk of damage to the teeth.
Prolonged episodes of tooth grinding can cause dental damage as a result of the teeth wearing down.
The AAP notes that tooth grinding occurs in about 14% to 17% of children, and it can start very early in childhood, as soon as the upper and lower teeth have erupted through the gums.
Although most children who grind their teeth tend to grow out of bruxism by around six, around one-third of children will continue the tooth grinding into adulthood.
It’s estimated that around 18% of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 experience bruxism, and less than 6% experience it past 60.
There is no noticeable difference in teeth grinding among boys or girls, and studies have shown conflicting results, but they do confirm that teeth grinding happens in both male and female children.
Effects on Health
In most cases, teeth grinding is not dangerous. Because tooth grinding occurs in children under six and tends to disappear as they get older, it will not cause any permanent damage because they don’t yet have their adult teeth.
Every child is different, and if you have any concerns or notice any breakdown in your child’s teeth, you should speak to their doctor or dentist.
If your child has passed the age of six and is still showing signs of tooth grinding, you will also want to speak with a doctor or dentist to see what kind of options you have for preventing any long-term damage to their teeth and to figure out what (if anything) may be causing the tooth grinding.
Some parents may be concerned about their children’s tooth grinding habits based on limited reports that teeth grinding is associated with harmful behaviour in children.
For example, in 2008, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) issued a release explaining a link between teeth grinding in toddlers and problems with school adjustment and social withdrawal behaviours.
The parents reported in their surveys that the same children who exhibited teeth grinding at night also displayed problems adjusting to preschool, engaged less with their peers, and were more withdrawn in social settings.
In the study, parents reported that 36.8% of preschoolers grind their teeth once or twice per week, while 6.7% did it four or more times per week.
The AASM’s findings were based on 1,956 preschoolers and discovered after the low-income parents in the study filled out a survey about their toddlers’ behaviours, school performances, social abilities, and teeth grinding patterns.
Ultimately, however, the study did not find a cause-and-effect relationship between the teeth grinding and negative behaviour—only that a relationship exists.
The study also showed that the more teeth grinding that the parents reported, the higher the incidence of negative social behaviour, which means that there could be other factors involved.
A further 2006 study in Sleep found that tooth grinding was not associated with lower intelligence levels in children or any sign of acid reflux. However, teeth grinding did appear to have a link in some children with behavioural problems.
Specifically, 40% of the children in their study also had elevated scores on the Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist.
Higher scores on the checklist are associated with attention and behaviour problems. The more the teeth grinding seemed to wake up the children, the higher the risk for attention and behaviour problems.
A study review by a dental journal also found that nighttime teeth grinding in children under the age of 12 and most commonly around age four was also associated with some behaviour irregularities, including hyperactivity, bad temper, and poor academic performance.
Physically, children with nighttime teeth grinding were also more likely to have chronic medical conditions such as allergies, asthma, and upper respiratory tract infections.
Impact on Sleep
As you may have guessed, many sleep studies that have examined bruxism have theorised that excessive teeth grinding in children who are preschool age may be interfering with quality sleep, which could be linked to negative behaviours and social withdrawal. Toddlers and preschoolers require 13 to 14 hours of quality sleep per night.
If teeth grinding interferes with Sleep, work with a doctor to figure out what is causing the grinding.
In some instances, a sleep study might be warranted to see if a sleep disorder is causing the teeth to grind.
Usually, however, teeth grinding does not fully wake a child up or interfere with their Sleep, so it will rarely disturb their Sleep.
However, if you are a family that co-sleeps, or if your toddler shares a sleeping environment with another adult or sibling, it’s worth noting that teeth grinding may be loud enough that it disrupts other peoples’ Sleep, so don’t forget that your sleep matters too!
If your toddler’s teeth grinding is keeping you from getting the rest you need, you may want to consider temporarily moving your child into another room, using white noise or a fan to help drown out the sound or adjusting your sleep routines so that you can rest through the noise.
When to Seek Help for Teeth-Grinding?
Talk to a health professional, like your GP or dentist, if you’re worried about your child’s teeth-grinding.
Devices to protect teeth or prevent grinding can help. You can talk to your dentist about these.
If your child grinds their teeth and also snores loudly, breathes with their mouth open, or chokes or gasps while they’re asleep, it’s a good idea to see your GP.
This can help you rule out issues like sleep apnea.
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 their 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 exceptional 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 develop an effective treatment plan.
What Are the Treatments for Teeth Grinding?
In older children, teeth grinding that causes your child significant pain or tooth misalignment is often treated with a nightguard.
These are thin, flexible pieces of plastic that slip over the upper gums to protect the teeth from damage.
However, toddlers’ teeth are constantly changing, which affects the guard’s ability to fit well.
Also, toddlers may not understand the how’s and why’s of wearing a nightguard at a young age.
One “treatment” you should not use is waking your child up when you hear teeth grinding. This could potentially worsen symptoms and affect your child’s ability to get a good night’s rest.
The typical treatment for toddler teeth grinding is no treatment at all.
If you suspect stress or anxiety could be a potential cause, you can try to establish more of a routine with your little one.
This could include incorporating particular snuggle time or reading time before bed to help them feel calm and comforted before drifting off to sleep.
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 caused by stress, ask about what’s upsetting your child and find a way to help.
For example, a kid worried 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, discuss your child’s concerns and try to ease any fears. If you’re concerned, talk to your doctor.
In rare cases, primary stress relievers aren’t enough to stop bruxism.
If your child has trouble sleeping or acts 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.
Most children stop grinding their teeth after they lose their baby teeth. So while your toddler has several more years with their baby teeth, rest assured, knowing that your child will likely grow out of the habit.
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