Teeth grinding in kids, also called sleep bruxism in children, refers to the grinding or clenching of teeth when your child is asleep.
Parents, especially first-timers, often watch over their children even while they are asleep. If you’re one of them, you may have observed your child moving their mouth constantly even when sound asleep. There may even be clacking sounds.
There’s a waking version too, when a toddler grinds their teeth when awake. It is an unconscious clenching of the teeth, most often owing to stress — but the origins are different and the effects are seldom anywhere near as bad as during sleep when certain protective mechanisms of the body are turned off.
If left untreated, bruxism in toddlers can cause damage to the teeth and surrounding tissue, headaches and jaw pain.
Read on to know about bruxism symptoms, bruxism causes, and how to stop a child from grinding their teeth at night.
During sleep bruxism, the upper and lower teeth may come into direct contact as much as 40 minutes per hour, and — for example, on the first molar — with a force of about 250 pounds. Compare that with normal circumstances, when a person’s teeth make contact for about 20 minutes a day while chewing, and with only 20 to 40 pounds of pressure.
Some signs that your toddler may have bruxism include:
- Teeth damage – check if there are fractures, receding gums, or worn-down teeth
- If you observe they are sensitive to cold or hot foods
- Clicking or grinding sounds
Sleep bruxism is not a disease, but a common sleep disorder. Bruxism in children is more prevalent. However, they often outgrow it. In addition, the origins of bruxism in toddlers may be different in adults.
The medical literature shows that stress, smoking, alcohol, caffeine and other factors may set off or worsen the condition in adults.
Other theories on the cause of bruxism are the body’s response to “malocclusion,” or problems with how the upper and lower teeth fit together; neurochemicals like dopamine and a pattern of activation in the autonomic nervous system.
As for teeth grinding in toddlers, it may be because they are testing and observing their new teeth.
The Nemours Foundation says that about two to three out of 10 children grind or clench their teeth. Toddler teeth grinding usually happens in their sleep, but some may grind their teeth when awake.
Some of the reasons may also include:
- Their teeth are not aligned properly.
- Your toddler is grinding their teeth when awake to relieve pain. This may happen if they have an earache or when they are teething.
- When taking medications, or if they have other medical conditions like cerebral palsy.
- Your toddler breathes through their mouth.
Teeth grinding may also happen in older children when they are anxious or stressed. This occurs when there is a change in their routine or if they are not feeling well. In some cases, your doctor may not be able to determine the specific cause.
Furthermore, secondhand smoke is a risk factor for teeth grinding in kids. There is research that shows even moderate secondhand exposure can increase the risk of children developing bruxism.
Your child may also be hyposensitive, and they grind their teeth because they need more oral input. When a child is hyposensitive, they have little or no awareness in their mouths. Because of this, their threshold for moral input is high.
Teeth Grinding in Toddlers with Autism
According to Pub Central, toddler teeth grinding is commonly observed in children with autism.
Teeth grinding in kids with autism may be their form of stimming. This is short for self-stimulation. This is their way of calming themselves, especially when they are stressed or feeling extreme emotions.
calcium spots on teeth
Teeth grinding in kids is generally not harmful. As mentioned, this is something that children eventually grow out of. In some cases, the worst “effect” is the anxiety it causes the parents.
However, some children may experience jaw pain as a result of teeth grinding. Though your young child may not be able to tell you this, look out for signs like when they frequently rub their jaw.
Meanwhile, according to the Sleep Foundation, bruxism can increase the risk of developing:
- Teeth and jaw problems like fractured teeth and receding gums
- TMJ or temporomandibular joint disorder
- Mental health conditions like anxiety and depression
- Eating disorders
- Sleep problems
In addition, your child’s teeth grinding and teeth clenching produces sounds, which can disrupt the sleep of other people in the bedroom.
There are acrylic mouth guards that your dentist may be able to prescribe for you to reduce the wear and tear on your teeth’s enamel.
The medical literature on bruxism showed that anti-anxiety medications like buspirone and clonazepam had worked on some patients. However, these are not for children.
If your child has autism, their occupational therapist may assess their needs and recommend sensory activities to help with their safe self-regulation. You may also ask about an oral fidget or chew tool to replace teeth grinding.
If you think that your child may be hyposensitive, you can consult a speech therapist or an occupational therapist trained in Sensory Processing Disorder. Gum massage, motor tools, and vibration may help with sensory stimulation and manage teeth grinding.
How To Prevent Toddler Teeth Grinding
Here are some ways how to stop a child from grinding their teeth at night.
Relaxation before Bedtime
Make bedtime enjoyable and relaxed by reading to and talking with children. This gives them an opportunity to review some of their fears and anger of the day. It may help with the teeth grinding of your toddler.
Creating and following a bedtime routine can help set your children up for successful and relaxing sleep. Here are some things you can do to calm them down for bedtime:
- Drinking warm milk
- Taking a warm bath
- Brushing teeth
- Reading a bedtime story
- Singing or listening to lullabies
Give your kids ample opportunity and space to play throughout the day. With preschoolers especially, it is important to have toys and games suited to their stage of development. With older children, encourage them to pursue activities like organised sports that release pent-up energy. This will aid in preventing your toddler from grinding their teeth even when awake.
Patience, Sympathy and Understanding
Be patient, sympathetic and understanding about their troubles, whether it is potty training or schoolwork.
According to Pub Central, communication and behavioral problems may pose as challenges when treating teeth grinding in kids with autism. But proper planning, together with a lot of patience from the dentist and parents, can help greatly towards a successful treatment..
If your child seems particularly resistant to treatment, this may be a signal that your child is troubled about a deeper problem. In this case, you may want to seek the advice of a child psychiatrist.
Furthermore, if your child’s sleep is being affected by their teeth grinding, make a trip to the dentist and your primary healthcare provider.
The piece is contributed by Dr Dana Elliott Srither MBBS (S’pore), Grad Dip Family Medicine, is a certified Family Physician who believes in the principles of “Get Well” and “Stay Well”.
Updates from Romy Pena Cruz
Healthline, Pub Central, Sleep Foundation, Ark Therapeutic
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