Why Do Kids Grind Their Teeth?


Written by Dr. Michael Breus

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Kids may grind their teeth at night for several reasons, including stress, teething-related pain, or a medical issue. Teeth grinding is relatively common in children, and most kids outgrow it and don’t experience any long-term issues.

However, teeth grinding can be associated with other conditions or sleep issues, so it makes sense to keep an eye on it. Parents and caregivers can help children who experience teeth grinding through several at-home methods and by talking to their dentist or pediatrician.

What Is Bruxism?

Bruxism is the medical term for when people grind their teeth and/or clench their jaws. It can happen consciously or unconsciously during the day or night.

Sleep bruxism typically occurs during the lighter stages of sleep. It almost always happens during natural micro-arousals, those times when people wake briefly during the night. Awake bruxism is often categorized as a different disorder from sleep bruxism, though individuals may still experience both.

Sleep-related bruxism is more common in children than in any other age group, with 14% to 17% of kids experiencing it. About 12% of teenagers and younger adults experience teeth grinding at night. The rate drops to about 8% for adults.

While no specific gene has been associated with teeth grinding in children, the condition does tend to occur within families. Between 20% and 50% of individuals who grind their teeth at night report at least one direct family member who has also experienced bruxism.

What Causes Teeth Grinding in Children?

The specific causes of teeth grinding aren’t fully understood, but there are a variety of factors associated with it that are worth noting. Teeth grinding in children may occur on its own or as a symptom of other underlying conditions. It may also be the result of a combination of different factors.

Stress or Anxiety

It’s largely believed that stress and anxiety are associated with teeth grinding. Children may grind their teeth due to life stressors, such as arguments with family members, or significant changes, like moving to a new home.

Tooth Pain

Children may also grind their teeth due to pain from teething or ear aches in an attempt to relieve the pain. Offering teething toys can help give them an alternative to grinding.

Teeth grinding in children has often been blamed on teeth that aren’t properly aligned, but there isn’t currently enough research to back up that claim.

Other Sleep Disorders or Health Conditions

Other sleep disorders, like sleepwalking, sleep talking, or sleep apnea, are often connected with teeth grinding in kids. Sleep bruxism has also been seen in children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and ADHD.

It’s worth noting that teeth grinding is also associated with certain medications, including antidepressants and ADHD medication.

Tobacco Smoke

There’s some evidence to suggest that exposure to secondhand smoke is linked to teeth grinding in kids. Smoking is also a known risk factor for sleep bruxism in teens and adults.

What Are the Signs of Teeth Grinding?

Signs of teeth grinding include worn down teeth, pain, and grinding sounds. However, most kids don’t know that they’re grinding their teeth, which can make it difficult to diagnose, let alone pinpoint a specific cause. Parents and caregivers can watch for symptoms if they suspect their children are grinding their teeth, and this information can help a doctor or dentist make a diagnosis.

  • Audible grinding sounds at night: Family members may hear grinding noises from the child experiencing bruxism. Parents can listen on a baby monitor if they suspect their kids are grinding their teeth.
  • Damage to teeth: If parents observe damages to their children’s teeth or their kids report difficulty chewing, these symptoms may be due to teeth grinding. A dentist can help determine the cause of damage.
  • Headaches and jaw pain: Children who grind their teeth at night may also experience morning headaches and jaw pain.
  • Poor sleep quality: Depending on their specific age, younger children need 10 to 14 hours of sleep every day. While teeth grinding doesn’t necessarily interrupt sleep, sleep issues can occur with teeth grinding. So if you notice your child is having trouble sleeping, you might look for signs of teeth grinding.

Is Teeth Grinding Harmful for Children?

Teeth grinding in children is typically not harmful, though it may lead to other concerns. Most children with sleep-related bruxism do not experience any symptoms and may never require treatment or intervention. However, some kids who grind their teeth at night may feel the effects on a short-term basis during the day, including jaw pain and headaches. If sleep-related bruxism persists for a longer period and is severe, it can result in significant damage to teeth.

Teeth grinding in children can also lead to temporomandibular joint and muscle (TMJ) disorders, though many people with this condition don’t grind their teeth. TMJ affects the muscles responsible for chewing, along with joints that attach the skull to the lower jaw. Symptoms for this condition include facial pains, ear aches, difficulty chewing, and headaches.

When to Visit a Doctor or Dentist

If your child reports frequent jaw pain or headaches, consider taking them to a doctor for a medical evaluation. You might also consider listening in while your child is sleeping to see if you hear any grinding that you can report to their doctor or dentist. Make note of any sleep issues or other concerns you’ve noticed so that you can provide a complete picture of your child’s health.

To help diagnose sleep grinding, your dentist can check your child’s teeth for abnormal damages, and they may look for tooth sensitivity.

Treatments for Teeth Grinding

There are a variety of ways you can help treat your child’s teeth grinding and alleviate symptoms.

  • Start with a calming bedtime routine: Help your child relax before going to bed by putting on calming music, reading a book, or encouraging a warm bath. Make sure their bedroom environment invites restful sleep.
  • Focus on stressors: If your child’s teeth grinding might be related to stress, like significant familial changes or moving to a different school, see what you can do to help them through it. Sometimes just talking through changes or stressful events can help kids process them.
  • Offer pain relief: Sometimes warm or cold compresses can help relieve jaw pain. Your doctor might also have suggestions for over-the-counter medications, facial massages, or stretches to help with discomfort.
  • Look into a nightguard: Dentists can take a mold of your child’s teeth to make a nightguard, a special type of mouth guard, which will protect your child’s teeth during the night.

About The Author

Dr. Michael Breus

Clinical Psychologist, Sleep Medicine Expert

Michael Breus, Ph.D is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. He holds a BA in Psychology from Skidmore College, and PhD in Clinical Psychology from The University of Georgia. Dr. Breus has been in private practice as a sleep doctor for nearly 25 years. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is also the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan, Good Night!, and Energize!

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