Teeth Grinding In Children

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Watching your child sleep is something many parents enjoy. You may look at them and find joy because the process of trying to conceive was complicated or perhaps you are happy because they are now resting peacefully and for a short time, the house is quiet. In watching your child sleep for whatever reason it may be, you may have heard a noise comparable to “nails on a chalkboard.” This noise is often them grinding their teeth. Teeth grinding is also known as bruxism, which is something that can be common in kids under the age of 11. Some doctors do consider this to be normal behavior. Statistics show that roughly 2 to 3 out of every ten children have bruxism.

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What is bruxism, why does my child do it, and what if it goes untreated?

Life is hectic and at times chaotic. Therefore, it can unknowingly be a contributing factor to bruxism. From stress and anxiety, to sleep apnea, mouth breathing, and even pain there can be many causes that can lead to teeth grinding in children. First and foremost, know that bruxism will undoubtedly interrupt a good night’s sleep. While you may think it is more common for adults to grind their teeth, have sleep apnea, or become mouth breathers it can be just as prevalent in children. Reasons for this can include anxiety and stress. A child may have difficulty expressing their feelings, so it can be hard to recognize that what they may be feeling is causing other problems. When a child goes to bed with copious amounts of anxiety, stress, or even frustration, they may clench their jaw, leading to bruxism. Also, any underlying medical conditions such as sleep apnea could be a contributing factor.

Listing all of the reasons a child may grind their teeth could take an excessive amount of time, but one of the biggest reasons, however, could be sleep apnea. Sleep apnea that goes untreated can also be responsible for a host of other medical issues such as depression, which may be responsible for your child’s stress or anxiety. Therefore, this can often lead to nighttime bruxism. Also, research has shown that teeth grinding activity will increase, and is directly proportional, to the number and frequency of apnea episodes (occurrences where your child may have cessations in breathing). If they have true apneic episodes, this may also lead to them becoming mouth breathers. Those who suffer from sleep apnea are often mouth breathers because when the airway is blocked, oxygen levels dip, and send a signal to the brain that more oxygen is required. That is when the mouth comes open, and we as humans adjust to not being able to get enough air through our nose. It’s a vicious cycle.

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So, what’s best?

Talk to your child, ask if they feel anxious, sad, frustrated, or maybe even scared. Once they feel comfortable opening up about their feelings, it will be easier to determine what steps should be taken. While it may be easiest to try fixing only what you can see or hear (teeth grinding), addressing other underlying medical conditions such as sleep apnea, and depression or anxiety will help tremendously. Discuss any of these concerns with your child’s pediatrician. They can make the proper referrals and order any necessary tests.

Should I try to figure out what to tell the pediatrician before I call, how do I know if this is exactly the noise I am hearing?

What are the exact causes of teeth grinding?

Here are a few ways in which it can be effectively narrowed down:

  1. Ask your child if they are upset or worried about anything. If possible, try to help them eliminate or limit stressors.
  2. Try to monitor your child as they are sleeping or if they share a room, ask their sibling for any signs. Possible causes could be going to bed with copious amounts of stress, having a lot of anxiety, or even sleep apnea. If you suspect your child has sleep apnea, consult a pediatrician. They will make every effort to address all concerns.
  3. Check your child’s teeth or casually mention it to their dentist/pediatrician. Teeth that are all the same length or have a flat appearance may be a sign of bruxism.
  4. Listen to what your child is saying. Ask if they are experiencing any jaw pain or soreness. If the pain is enough, this may be something that they mention to you before you even ask them. Having pain can be a very positive sign that they are grinding their teeth at night.

While there may be many contributing factors in addition to those mentioned above, you may be wondering what will be the most effective way to help your child? First, it is important to recognize potential issues and know that there is treatment available, but you may wonder should you even bother fixing it or will they outgrow it? Can it be dangerous? The short answer is, yes.

little girl enjoying outside with balloons

Aside from underlying medical issues such as stress, anxiety, and sleep apnea here are a few additional reasons that may cause teeth grinding in children:

  1. Hyperactivity – this is when kids exhibit large amounts of energy or are incredibly active.
  2. Reaction to a medication – evaluate whether your child has been on medication or consider this if they have recently started something new.
  3. Cerebral Palsy – You may be asking yourself just how common is bruxism or teeth grinding concerning CP? Findings in recent statistics show that roughly three out of every ten children suffer from bruxism and it is entirely possible that this number may be growing since this is something that can go unnoticed in young children. Typically, most children will outgrow bruxism, which is excellent news!
  4. Genetics – This is another factor to consider. Often, this can be overlooked. If one family member has bruxism, it is possible that your child may have it too.

While you may not think bruxism is dangerous, you should take this condition seriously. Bruxism can have lasting effects if not treated properly. Things your child may experience from grinding their teeth are:

  1. Ruining the enamel of their teeth. Once that enamel is gone, there is no way to replace it. The softer part of the tooth (dentin) is then exposed, which can lend itself to a host of problems.
  2. Inadequate Rest. We all know rest is an essential part of a happy, healthy life for anyone. Bruxism can affect the quality of sleep, and in children, this could lead to problems at school, depression, and behavioral issues.
  3. Your child may also experience pain. It’s hard to watch someone be in pain, especially your child. Jaw pain, headaches, and earaches are all common forms of pain that can be experienced by children who grind their teeth.
  4. Last but not least, your child could continue to suffer from unresolved medical issues. For example, children who are considered mouth breathers or those who suffer from adenotonsillar hypertrophy, a leading cause of obstructive sleep apnea, typically also suffer from bruxism. Sleep apnea should be taken seriously. It has negative impacts on many vital organs of the body (heart, lungs, etc.) Also, those with dental occlusion problems and psychological problems may be at higher risk.
kid happy with her family

How is bruxism treated?

First and foremost, verify that the grinding hasn’t caused significant damage. If it hasn’t, the child may outgrow it, but if you feel you would still like to address it, start by narrowing down the cause of your child grinding their teeth. If the reason is due to stress or anxiety, it may be best to target the underlying issue rather than merely treating the grinding. After all, addressing the “main” problem could be more useful later in life. Finally, be sure to get your child into the dentist. Have them take a closer look. There is a good chance that they will want them to wear a night guard, which is a relatively simple device worn at night and may go a long way in promoting the oral and overall health of your child.

Ultimately, treating major medical problems will be crucial to the overall health of your child. The cycle of treating sleep apnea can help with mouth breathing, which will help the depression and anxiety. Addressing the depression, anxiety, apnea, and mouth breathing will also help reduce the frequency and occurrence of teeth grinding. If you are unsure where to start, your best bet is always the pediatrician. He or she will guide you in the right direction. We all know that a growing body needs plenty of rest. Happy kids mean happy parents!

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