It’s the middle of the night. A persistent noise tickles the edge of your consciousness, and you wake up to the clock ticking, the heater humming and a squeaking, rattling theme drifting from your child’s bedroom. The sound is like nails on a chalkboard, and it makes you want to grind your teeth.
In fact, that’s what your child is doing.
Dr. Randy Hamilton, founder of iKids Pediatric Dentistry, knows the feeling all too well. “It sounds like two skeletons are fighting on the roof of the house,” he says. “It’s amazing that something that loud can come from something so small and sweet.” The father of four has one child of his own grinding, but as a dentist, Dr. Hamilton is not too concerned – yet. He just gives her cheeks a squeeze and returns to bed.
Teeth grinding, or bruxism, is a common occurrence among children; a 2005 study published in the Journal of Dentistry for Children reports that 38 percent of children grind their teeth. Bruxism is especially manifest in toddlers and children under 7, and it happens almost exclusively during sleep – much to the chagrin of light-sleeping parents and siblings. And though you desperately want to make it stop, “continuing to wake up the child is not a good idea,” says Dallas pediatric dentist Dr. Alex Villaseñor. The mom of two assures parents of children who grind that “it’s self-limiting and typically does not create any problems.”
Even babies may grind what teeth they have as their mouths begin to grow and change, Dr. Villaseñor says. Earaches can also induce grinding in babies and toddlers. As they get older, children continue to grind as a result of the unevenness that accompanies their wiggling teeth and growing jaws. “The bruxism is considered to be merely an effort to find a comfortable position,” says Dr. Jeffrey Holt, father of three and founder of Kids Dental. Occlusion, or the alignment of the jaw, settles when the 6-year-old molars come in; after that, Dr. Holt says, most children stop grinding.
Bruxism’s bark is certainly worse than its bite for younger grinders. No matter how alarming the sounds emanating from your child’s bedroom, the possibility of damage is slim. Children may report sensitivity or soreness in the jaw, “but that typically doesn’t occur in young children,” Dr. Villaseñor says. Other possible effects include headaches and loose or broken teeth, but these too are rare in younger children. As such, Dr. Holt explains, “The majority of pediatric bruxism cases do not require any treatment.” Nevertheless, he recommends that parents who suspect bruxism consult their child’s pediatric dentist, just in case – though most of the time, a little cotton in your ears at night will be the best solution.
Older kids may experience more wear or jaw pain, so parents should pay attention to those 6-year-old molars. If the molars have arrived and the grinding isn’t on its way out, then it’s time to do more than put cotton in your ears.
In addition to causing damage, bruxism in older kids may signal that other problems are brewing in your child’s mouth, his health or even his social life. Most infamously, teeth grinding is a red flag for temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD or TMJ), a painful dysfunction of the jaw. But thankfully, that’s not always the case. Dr. Holt and Dr. Villaseñor agree the cause of grinding might be as basic as allergies or congestion, easily relieved by a dose of antihistamine or a trip to the ENT. Large tonsils or adenoids can also block your child’s airway and cause bruxism, but adenotonsillectomy has been shown to reduce the effects. And Dr. Hamilton adds that the problem could simply be dehydration.
One of the most prominent causes of teeth grinding in children of all ages is stress, though it is particularly prevalent among older children and teens. A sudden increase in homework and hormones means more stress, noisy nights and possible dental damage. So while it’s wise to consult a dentist if your child is grinding, sometimes the solution is outside the dentist’s office – in your home life or your child’s routine.
“Predictability is comforting to children,” says Angela Martilik, LPC-S, of Family Tree Counseling in Plano. Keep the family routine stable and familiar, as big changes – new school, new schedule, new acne – can trigger stress subconsciously, especially during sleep. Or your child could be anxious about a social or academic issue at school, in which case you should schedule a parent-teacher conference to brainstorm solutions.
To minimize stress and maximize relaxation before bedtime, practice an age-appropriate breathing exercise; young children may need a creative impetus, like blowing bubbles. You can also give your child a massage or do some stretching exercises (if movement seems to relax your child, Martilik recommends kids yoga classes). And tell your child to hold his tongue between his teeth as he’s counting sheep – though it feels funny, this action relaxes the jaw muscles before sleep.
Dr. Hamilton also tells his patients to avoid stimulants before bed – TV, caffeine, even homework (your child definitely won’t complain about that). Martilik agrees, and especially warns parents against letting their kids watch the news at night. You may get an earful when you whisk away the iPad, but hopefully you won’t get an earful of gnashing teeth at three in the morning.
And whether or not you identify the root source of grinding, there is an orthodontic solution for the noise and the threat of wear: a mouth guard. Dr. Villaseñor doesn’t recommend this avenue for kids with “mixed dentition,” a combination of baby and permanent teeth, as you will need to adjust the mouth guard every time the tooth fairy visits. But for older kids, the mouth guard can prevent grinding at night – and ensure a better night’s sleep for everyone in the house.