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Parents and caregivers want their child to sleep peacefully, so it can be a bit of a shock to go into their room at night and to hear a grinding sound. Bruxism is the medical term for teeth grinding and clenching. It’s a problem that generally occurs during sleep, or when someone’s feeling stressed. Approximately two out of three children will grind their teeth or will clench at some stage, but most will outgrow the habit.

Why Do Children Clench and Grind?

There have been lots of studies conducted into this condition, but it’s not quite known why the habit develops. It’s possible that children may grind their teeth because their teeth aren’t aligned correctly, while others will do it when they do not feel comfortable, for example when they have an ear ache. In this case teeth grinding can help ease the pain.

Sometimes clenching and grinding can develop due to stress. It might be that a child is worried about school, or that they’ve recently undergone some major life change, for example a new sibling, a recent house move or even just a change in teachers. Some children will clench and grind in response to arguments with parents or siblings. It is also a condition that can affect children who are hyperactive or who have other medical issues such as cerebral palsy. It may be a side effect of certain medications.

The Effects of Teeth Grinding and Clenching

Sometimes bruxism may cause no adverse effects, and might go undetected. Other times it could cause jaw aches and headaches, and eventually it can wear down tooth enamel, increase sensitivity towards hot and cold, lead to chipped teeth and even cause severe facial pain and problems with the jaw joints. Many children who clench or grind aren’t even aware they do so, and it is often parents or siblings who identify the problem. Signs to watch out for include:

  • A grinding noise while your child is asleep
  • Increased complaints about jaw pain or a sore face, or waking up with a headache
  • Your child might find it painful to chew

If you think your child might have bruxism then contact your pediatric dentist. They will examine your child’s teeth for signs of unusual wear and tear, and can check for tooth sensitivity. If bruxism is confirmed, then your dentist will want to ask your child a few simple questions to try to find out if the problem is being caused by stress, or whether it’s anatomical and is due to misaligned teeth. This information helps your dentist to develop an effective treatment plan.

Treating Bruxism in Children

Most children will outgrow bruxism, but your dentist might want to keep a close eye on your child until they are sure the problem has passed. If the bruxism is causing your child facial or jaw pain, or is damaging their teeth, your dentist will prescribe a night guard. This is a thermoplastic device that fits over your child’s teeth and is worn throughout the night. It looks a little like an athletic mouth guard, and it might take a while for your child to get used to going to sleep with this in place. It’s worth persevering as the night guard will prevent the teeth from coming into contact which will help protect the teeth and jaws and could help to break the habit. If the issue is being caused by misaligned teeth then your dentist may suggest various ways of adjusting their bite, for example through orthodontic treatment.

You can help break the habit of bruxism by making sure your child feels relaxed before bedtime. If the issue is due to stress, ask your child why they’re feeling worried and try to reassure them. Often it can be a small problem that is quite easily resolved. If you think the issue is more deep-seated than it’s worth contacting your pediatric dentist or doctor for further evaluation and help. Most children will outgrow bruxism by the time they reach adolescence. However a few children will continue to clench and grind, and if the problem is a reaction to stress then it’s likely to continue until the stress is removed.

Bruxism in children tends to occur as part of their growth and development, and it’s usually not possible to prevent it from occurring. However talking to your child and helping them deal with any stress could reduce the likelihood of them developing bruxism. Regular checkups at your pediatric dentist will help identify any problems if they develop, so a solution can be found sooner rather than later.

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