toddler teeth

It’s very common for children to grind their teeth while they are sleeping – it’s called sleep related Bruxism. Between 14% – 17% of children are grinding their teeth while they are sleeping. It can even happen at a very early age – as soon as some of the upper and lower teeth have erupted. Children typically grow out of it around 6 years of age but about one-third of children continue grinding their teeth into adulthood. There is not a higher prevalence in boys or girls.

Should I be concerned about my child grinding their teeth?

Parents are usually more concerned about children grinding their teeth due to the disturbing loud noise that can be heard. Children are mostly unaware of the habit. It is uncommon for children to grind their teeth while they are awake. In such cases, it is helpful to direct the child’s attention away from the behavior and in doing so, breaking the habit.

Why do children grind their teeth?

The big question, of course, is why do children grind their teeth? The muscles of the jaw contract involuntarily during sleep. When these contractions are too strong, it can cause the child to grind.

Another reason for grinding can be that the upper and lower jaws that are sometimes growing at a different rate. This can cause either an overbite or underbite, resulting in misalignment and ultimately grinding.

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When a child experiences the new sound and feeling of grinding, it’s a novelty. Therefore he/she will continue doing it. Soon the novelty will wear off, or as soon as the bite evens out the child will stop grinding his/her teeth.

As disturbingly loud as it might be, it rarely causes the child to wake up during the night as it commonly occurs during REM sleep (the second stage of sleep). Some studies have shown signs of disturbed sleep during grinding – these include increased heart rate, called micro-arousals, but it is not enough to fully awaken the child.

illustration of the effects of teeth grinding or Bruxism in children

The severity of the grinding varies. In mild cases, the child will have only a few episodes of grinding during the night. In more severe cases, the grinding will take place more frequently. Prolonged grinding can result in the teeth wearing down. It goes without saying that more severe cases of grinding will result in higher risk of damage to the teeth.

What causes teeth grinding or Bruxism in children?

Let’s look at possible contributing factors to Bruxism. A small airway can cause a person to not drop into the deepest stage of sleep. This means their glymphatic system isn’t running on full capacity. The glymphatic system cleans the brain of important neurotoxins during sleep.

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In selective cases bruxism can be caused by stress and anxiety or major life events/trauma. It can also be the result of pain/fever, especially something like an ear infection.

Another cause of teeth grinding can be the misalignment of teeth/abnormal bite. This includes teeth that are missing or crooked.

Most of the time, sleep-related Bruxism has no cause, nor is it the result of any underlying condition, and the habit is short lived. But it’s definitely worth investigating any possible causes and a full medical examination is always a good idea to ensure that all is well.

These causes are not very common and mostly bruxism is not linked to any underlying condition or cause. If your child is grinding his/her teeth it is important to keep a look out for frequent headaches, trauma to the teeth & gums, pain & discomfort of any sort upon waking up and hot/cold sensitivity to the teeth.

Can teeth grinding disturb my child’s sleep?

I suppose you also wonder if teeth grinding has an impact on your toddler’s sleep. Many studies theorised that excessive teeth grinding in preschool children might be interfering with quality of sleep, which could be linked to negative behaviors and social withdrawals. We are aware that toddlers and preschoolers require 13-14 hours of quality sleep per night. This would be the case if the teeth grinding habit did indeed wake the toddler up at night, but from the information available, this seems not be the case.

healthy teeth checklist

More commonly in adults, there may be a link between teeth grinding and sleep disorders such as sleep apnea. In rare instances a sleep study is warranted to see if a sleep disorder is causing teeth grinding. But teeth grinding is hardly ever responsible for waking up the child.

There are unsupported and inconclusive studies that support the theory that gut parasites may be responsible for Bruxism. Some inconclusive studies even support the theory that Vitamin deficiency is responsible for Bruxism. As I have mentioned before, teeth grinding hardly ever has an underlying cause, but a medical examination is always a good idea to rule out any suspicions and put your mind at ease.

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What to do if Bruxism in a child is a result of stress or anxiety

If you suspect grinding because of anxiety, make bedtime relaxing – play soothing music, read a book together or let your toddler take a warm bath or shower before going to bed. Very importantly, encourage communication and let your toddler talk about their feelings.

To illustrate the insignificance of teeth grinding, let’s look at the effect that the grinding habit might have on the health of the toddler. There is no permanent damage to the teeth and the habit itself disappears around 6 years of age. Up and till that stage there are no permanent teeth. If the habit continues after the age of 6, or if the wear is severe, then it is advisable to consult with your dental professional to prevent long-term damage.

After an examination by a dental professional, the decision will be made if it is indeed necessary to give the toddler a night guard to sleep with. Take into account that these might be very uncomfortable for the toddler and the success rate of wearing these night guards are very low. You also need to keep in mind that a night guard needs to be personally made for each person. With a lot of growth still taking place and new teeth erupting in a relatively short period of time, it’s unlikely that the night guard will fit for long. Often these devices cause more disruption to a child’s sleeping pattern than the grinding does.

There are limited reports that teeth grinding is associated with negative behavior in children. And the studies that do exist, can’t find a cause-and-effect relationship, but merely state that such a relationship does exists.

Hopefully this will clear up some of the concerns you may have regarding your toddler’s teeth grinding habit. If you are still concerned, have a consultation with your dental professional. He/she will consult with you and your child and make sure the necessary steps are taken to prevent this from becoming a problem in future.

Sarie Liebenberg, dental hygienist and lecturer
Sarie traded a glamorous career as a lecturer at a finishing school for a new adventure as a dental hygienist and lecturer when she went to university to retrain at the age of 31. Sarie found her passion in helping people, saying ‘it’s much more than working on someone’s mouth, it’s restoring confidence, creating opportunities and being part of making it all happen, not only for the patient, but also for myself.’ A mom of one herself, Sarie has a special interest in working with children.