CHP Pediatric Dentistry: Teeth Grinding

Your preschooler falls asleep, and you hear a loud grating noise. Could your child be grinding their teeth at night? And will childhood teeth grinding lead to anything worse?

Thankfully, childhood teeth grinding (medical name: bruxism) is rarely a serious problem. Here’s what you need to know to set your mind at ease.

What Is Childhood Teeth Grinding?

Childhood teeth grinding is just what it sounds like — grinding or clenching the teeth. It usually happens at night when children are asleep but can also occur during the day.

Almost all children grind their teeth at some point during childhood. The habit usually peaks between the ages of three and six. Most children grow out of it by their teen years, when they have all their adult teeth.

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What Causes Childhood Teeth Grinding?

The causes of childhood teeth grinding are not well understood. Here are some of the reasons children might grind their teeth.

Their jaws and teeth are growing

From birth to the teenage years, a child’s jaws and teeth keep shifting, even when new teeth aren’t actively erupting. While they sleep, children may be subconsciously trying to fit their changing teeth together. Their mouths adjust to small movements in their teeth and growing jaws.

They have airway problems

Teeth grinding sometimes goes along with conditions that make it harder for a child to breathe. A child may have large tonsils or adenoids that partially block the airway and affect breathing. Your child’s doctor can examine the child’s airway to see if this is the case.

It’s a reaction to stress

In adults, teeth grinding is often associated with stress or worry. Teeth grinding in adults can sometimes lead to chipped and cracked teeth. Some adults who grind or clench their jaws show symptoms of temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, like headaches and jaw pain.

However, stress usually isn’t the cause of teeth grinding in children.

One exception: Some children grind their teeth during the day. They may do this during stress or concentration, such as taking a test. Most children aren’t aware they are grinding their teeth or clenching their jaws during their waking hours.

How Do Dentists Diagnose Childhood Teeth Grinding?

If your child grinds their teeth, your dentist will see worn enamel. Tooth enamel is thinner on primary or baby teeth, so it wears away more quickly than on permanent teeth. A grinder’s teeth may also look slightly flattened.

Are There Complications From Childhood Teeth Grinding?

Serious complications from childhood teeth grinding are rare.

Grinding the teeth may expose the dentin — the part of the tooth under the enamel. It’s easier for bacteria to enter this softer part of the tooth. So children who grind their teeth may be more susceptible to getting cavities.

Good dental hygiene can help prevent cavities, whether or not children grind their teeth.

If children have dental fillings, grinding the teeth may make the filling more likely to pop out. In some cases, dentists will use stainless steel crowns on baby teeth instead of fillings, as they can be more sturdy on the teeth.

Most adults who grind their teeth did grind their teeth as children, but just because you do it as a child doesn’t mean you will do it as an adult.

When Should You Call the Doctor About Childhood Teeth Grinding?

In most cases, your dentist will reassure you that childhood teeth grinding is a temporary and harmless problem.

However, there are some instances where your dentist will suggest your child see their doctor.

Snoring or other breathing issues

If your child also snores or shows signs of sleep apnea, they should see a doctor. Your child’s doctor will examine your child’s airway, tonsils, and adenoids. These organs can swell and block the airway, making breathing hard at night.

They may suggest medicines to help open the airway. These medicines include steroid nasal spray or antibiotics to treat infection and reduce swelling. In more severe cases, they may recommend surgery.

When the airway is open, your child can breathe better. The jaw can move back into place, and teeth grinding diminishes.

Clenching during stress

If you notice your child clenching their jaw or grinding their teeth during the day, point it out to them. Most children don’t notice that they’re grinding their teeth. Your child’s doctor can suggest relaxation techniques to help them handle stress.

Treatment for Childhood Teeth Grinding

For a healthy child, there is no treatment for teeth grinding. It usually doesn’t cause significant damage. However, paying attention to your child’s oral health is crucial.

Do:

  • Begin seeing a dentist early. Take your child to a dentist within six months of the first tooth eruption. Your child will learn to be comfortable at the dentist’s office, and the dentist can catch any problems early.
  • Consider a pediatric dentist. A dentist specializing in children might be a good choice, especially if your child has complex health problems or behavioral issues. Pediatric dentists have training in treating children of all ages and abilities.
  • Take breathing issues seriously. See your child’s doctor if your child snores loudly or shows signs of sleep apnea.

Don’t:

  • Use a mouth guard. Some people try mouthguards for children who grind their teeth, but these are not needed. Mouth guards provide a barrier but don’t stop the grinding. And with constantly shifting teeth, they don’t fit a child’s mouth well for very long.
  • Wake them up. Some parents might want to nip teeth grinding in the bud by waking the child at night. It’s not a good idea. It will disrupt their sleep and won’t stop them from grinding.
  • Worry unnecessarily. Almost all children outgrow teeth grinding with no long-term problems.

If you have questions about your child’s teeth grinding, talk to your dentist at your next dental appointment. They will likely reassure you that teeth grinding is a harmless phase that will soon pass.

Sources

Mary Chapman, DDS, pediatric dentist at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, chapmanms@chp.edu, 402-889-1588

American Dental Association, Teeth Grinding, Link

American Academy of Pediatrics, Teeth Grinding in Children, Link

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.