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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.
What Is Bruxism?
Bruxism is the medical term for the grinding of teeth or the clenching of jaws, especially during deep sleep or while under stress. It comes from the Greek word “brychein,” which means to gnash the teeth. Three out of every 10 kids will grind or clench, experts say, with the highest incidence in children under 5.
Causes of Bruxism
Though studies have been done, no one knows why bruxism happens. But 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 an earache or teething. Kids might grind their teeth as a way to ease the pain, just as they might rub a sore muscle. Most kids outgrow these fairly common causes for grinding.
Stress – usually nervous tension or anger – is another cause. For instance, your child may be worrying about a test at school or experiencing 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 experience bruxism.
Effects of Bruxism
Generally, bruxism doesn’t hurt a child’s teeth. Many cases go undetected with no adverse effects, though some may result in mild morning headaches or earaches. Most often, however, the condition can be more bothersome to you and others in your home because of the grinding sound.
In some extreme 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 is chronic.
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 in the morning
- thumb sucking
- fingernail biting
- gnawing on pencils and toys
- chewing the inside of the cheek
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 detected, the dentist will 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 grinding is caused by anatomical (misaligned teeth) or psychological (stress) factors and come up with an effective treatment plan.
Most kids outgrow bruxism, but a combination of parental observation and dental visits can help keep the problem in check until they do.
In cases where the grinding and clenching make a child’s face and jaw sore or damage the teeth, dentists may prescribe a special night guard. Molded to a child’s teeth, the night guard is similar to the protective mouthpieces worn by football players. Though a mouthpiece may take some getting used to, positive results happen quickly.
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 that’s caused by stress, try to find out what’s upsetting your child and find a way to help. For example, a kid who is worried about being away from home for a first camping trip might need reassurance that mom or dad will be nearby if anything happens.
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 about your child’s emotional state, talk to your doctor.
In rare cases, basic stress relievers aren’t enough to stop bruxism. If your child has trouble sleeping or is acting differently than usual, your child’s dentist or doctor may suggest a psychological assessment. This can help determine the cause of the stress and an appropriate course of treatment.
How Long Does Bruxism Last?
Childhood bruxism is usually outgrown by adolescence. Most kids stop grinding when they lose their baby teeth because permanent teeth are much more sensitive to pain. However, a few children do continue to grind into adolescence. And if the bruxism is caused by stress, it will continue until the stress is relieved.
Because some bruxism is a child’s natural reaction to growth and development, most cases can’t be prevented. Stress-induced bruxism can be avoided; however, by talking with kids regularly about their feelings and helping them deal with stress.
Dr. Sally Naguib