When you look in on your sleeping child, you want to hear the sounds of sweet dreams: easy breathing and perhaps an occasional sigh. But some parents hear the harsher sounds of gnashing and grinding teeth, called bruxism, which is common in kids.
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 10 will grind or clench, experts say, but most outgrow it. Bruxism often happens during deep sleep phases or when kids are under stress.
Causes of Bruxism
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. 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 kids who are hyperactive also have bruxism. And sometimes kids with other medical conditions (such as cerebral palsy) or who take certain medicines can develop bruxism.
Effects of Bruxism
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 circumstances, 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). Most kids who grind, however, do not have TMJ problems unless their grinding and clenching happen a lot.
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 his or her 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 unusual 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 determine whether the cause is anatomical (misaligned teeth) or psychological (stress), and come up with an effective treatment plan.