As cute as they are, kids can be kind of gross. They toot at the most inopportune times (like during dinner or in the movie theater during an especially quiet scene), they sometimes snort when they laugh, and they can be somewhat stinky, too. But of all the sights (and ack, smells) that their little bodies can crank out, there is probably no sound that is more cringey than when your child clamps down on their gums. So if you’ve ever wondered why kids grind their teeth, there are quite a few reasons, from the simple to the more serious.
Is teeth grinding in kids common?
There’s no denying the sickening sound that occurs when your child grinds their teeth. It’s a nightmarish cacophony of crunching, clenching, and cracking that will have you swearing that your kiddo is literally consuming their canines. Not surprisingly, there’s a name for this dental dilemma and it’s called bruxism. “Teeth grinding and clenching, otherwise known as bruxism, is fairly common in children and adults,” Dr. Morgan Nowery, DDS, MSD, a pediatric dentist at Cornerstone Care Community Health Centers explains. “It is estimated to affect between 13-49% of pediatric patients. For many patients this occurs at night and is known as Sleep Bruxism, while others have Awake Bruxism that result in grinding or clenching the teeth while awake.”
Why do kids grind their teeth?
Sure, it might make you feel somewhat relieved to know that it’s not just your kid who is grinding their teeth, but that still doesn’t explain why it actually occurs. “The reasons for grinding can be different at different stages in life,” says Dr. Erin Issac, a board-certified pediatric dentist. “Little ones (think: those that are still teething) often do it because they literally are figuring out that they have these things called teeth in their mouth and that they can do things like rubbing (grinding) together.” In this case, your kiddo is grinding their teeth simply because they can. But as kids get older, their reasons for grinding can change. “Some slightly older kids do it habitually when focusing intently on a task or conversely, when relaxed, i.e., sitting in front of the TV,” Issac continues. “Further, some kids grind unconsciously at night as their teeth and body are trying to figure out how everything fits together.”
There are other reasons why your child is making those sickening sounds while they sleep. “One of the major risk factors associated with children with bruxism is emotional stress and anxiety,” adds Nowery. “Changes in occlusion, or the way your child’s teeth fit together as they erupt new teeth, can also contribute to bruxism. The changes in their ‘bite’ can trigger a bruxism event that will have them grind until their bite feels stabilized.”
Additionally, if your child is taking certain medications, that might make them want to subconsciously grind their teeth as well. “Certain medications such as ADHD stimulants, SSRIs, or antipsychotics for example, can also trigger a bruxism event and cause a child to grind for periods of time,’ she continues.
And then, your babe’s bruxism might not be related to their teeth but rather to their sleep. Researchers found that children who have sleep disturbances or breathing issues can also experience teeth clenching or grinding. Your child’s dentist or pediatrician can help identify and diagnose bruxism and suggest further treatment with sleep specialists, a pediatric dentist (if your child isn’t already being treated by one), a PCP and/or an ENT to uncover potential comorbidities that are attributable to your child’s sleep grinding.
Explains Issac: “It’s important to note that if grinding is accompanied by snoring, mouth breathing, crowded teeth, an open bite, tongue tie, large tonsils, and/or high arched palate, there could potentially be a problem with sleep disordered breathing and this should be evaluated by a pediatric dentist, PCP, and/or ENT,” she says. “This is because sleep disordered breathing means that the child is not intaking enough oxygen, so their body is in a stressed state, hence the clenched muscles and teeth.”
Do kids outgrow teeth grinding?
Well, it depends. If there aren’t any additional medical issues, your child can probably beat bruxism. Issac explains: “The majority of younger kids end up stopping on their own; however, sometimes the habit re-emerges later on in teenage or young adult years.” Thing is, how do you know if your child is still on the grind or not? A good ol’ checkup can do the trick. “Dentists are often able to see the early signs of teeth grinding at your 6-month check-up which can show the teeth appearing flat,” explains Nowery. “As permanent teeth start to erupt, parents should be concerned about long-term damage to these teeth and should seek care and treatment with a dentist.”
If your child grinds their teeth excessively, what could be the treatments?
Once it’s been determined what’s causing your child’s dental woes, (and it’s not something serious), there are fortunately ways to treat it. “For children having issues dealing or coping with stress or anxiety, teaching stress management techniques can be very beneficial and aid to resolve the child’s grinding or clenching habit,” says Nowery. “For some children, wearing a custom-fit mouthguard, nightguard, or other myofunctional appliance to protect the teeth can help to prevent permanent grinding damage to your child’s teeth. This mouthpiece typically will open the bite slightly and prevent teeth damage specifically for those who have sleep bruxism.”
“For children who have sleep apnea or sleep-disordered breathing, these children may need a referral to see an ENT (Ear Nose & Throat) specialist to evaluate any large tonsils or adenoids causing an airway blockage,” she continues. “These patients may also have a narrow mouth that may require a palatal expander to improve or eliminate their bruxism habit.”
When should parents be concerned about teeth grinding?
Ideally, your child’s teeth grinding should go away on its own — but that doesn’t mean it can’t do some serious dental damage in the meantime. “Damage can occur if teeth grinding lasts for several years,” says Issac. “The top chewing surface of teeth can become flattened and worn down and if grinding is severe and lasts for several years, the chewing surface of the tooth may become so worn down that you can begin to see a pinkish hue (the nerve) to the tooth.”
Pain is also a pivotal part of assessing whether bruxism is becoming problematic. “Parents should bring their child in to the dentist if the teeth grinding is in any way causing toothaches or jaw pain for their child,” adds Dr. Shahrooz Yazdani, CEO and Director of Yazdani Family Dentistry. “When teeth grinding occurs in excess, it can cause pain or even damage to the teeth themselves. If your child has a cracked tooth or you notice any chipping on the tops of your child’s teeth, I recommend getting a dentist to assess the situation immediately.” Your pediatric dentist will let you know if they are concerned about wear on your child’s teeth related to grinding, and if any dental treatment is necessary to correct the issue.
Kids grind their teeth many reasons, and for the most part, bruxism is mostly benign. But if you notice that your child’s teeth are bearing the brunt of the grinding, they’re complaining of pain, (or worse, it’s causing sleep disturbances), you should take them to the dentist to determine the best treatment plan to take care of their teeth.