There are two types of teeth grinding: the kind you do during the day, and the kind you do at night. It turns out these are different conditions, with different causes and treatments. The effects on teeth, unfortunately are the same. We will focus here on teeth grinding in children, particularly the kind that happens during sleep.
Because everything in medicine has to have a Greek or Latin name in order to bedazzle us normal people, teething grinding is officially known as “Bruxism”, from the Greek word meaning “bite, or gnash”. The word has been in use only since 1930. But humans have been teeth grinding forever.
Nighttime Teeth Grinding in Children
Teeth grinding in children is very common. Best estimates put it at 20-30% of all children do it. During the day, babies will grind their brand-new teeth together once they get a matching set of top and bottom teeth. Why do they do this? The truth is that no one knows. But I have a theory.
Stupid Baby Tricks
I believe babies grind teeth during the day simply because they can. It’s one of those cool things to do with their body that gives an effect they didn’t expect. I lump it in the same category as head-bonking and self-gagging. Collectively I call them “stupid baby tricks”, not because the baby is stupid, but because the trick is pretty dumb. One important feature of stupid baby tricks is that the baby gets bored with them quickly. Because they’re dumb! But they will continue to grind their teeth for you (and other things) in proportion to the response it gets from you. It’s as if the baby says to herself “I don’t really like grinding my teeth but Gee! What a response it gets from Mom! I’m gonna keep doing this!!!”
Why at night?
But surely the baby doesn’t do this on purpose in her sleep! What causes nighttime teeth grinding in children?
The honest answer is “nobody knows”.
There was a theory that teeth grinding was caused by teeth being out of alignment. Other theories suggest that stress is the cause. The truth is that we cannot pinpoint any cause for nighttime teeth grinding. Most sleep experts claim that nighttime bruxism is a parasomnia, like sleepwalking or sleep-eating. If this is true, children do this because they sleep very deeply and then have “sudden partial awakenings” in which they rise up quickly from deep sleep but never quite reach full wakefulness.
How do we even know it’s going on?
Most of the time, parents hear the child grinding her teeth in her sleep. If the theory is correct, and this teeth grinding is from a sudden partial awakening, it will occur in the first half of the night, 2-3 hours after the child falls asleep. An older child may complain in the morning that her jaw hurts. In extreme cases, the child will develop temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD), with headaches and difficulty moving the jaw.
The good news is that your child will probably not do this for very long. Most kids stop grinding their teeth in sleep by the time they have all their adult teeth. This is about the time that all the other common sleep problems of childhood go away, like sleepwalking.
In the meantime, we don’t really know how to prevent or treat nighttime teeth grinding. The majority of sleep experts suggest that the child be relaxed and relatively stress-free at bedtime. This is good advice, but I would argue that it’s good advice for any child before bedtime! There’s no good evidence that this will reduce teeth grinding, but it’s not a bad idea.
There’s some suggestion as well that relative dehydration may lead to teeth grinding, so that a child should drink plenty of fluids before bed. I’m not crazy about this idea, particularly if one of the sleep problems you are dealing with is bedwetting.
In the more severe cases, the dentist may suggest a mouth guard for the child. These are used to prevent any further damage to the teeth, even if they are baby teeth. If you go this route, you may do better to have a specially-fitted appliance for the child. The mouth is a sensitive place and mouth guards can be very uncomfortable if they don’t fit properly. Before you make your decision, find out if an appliance will be covered by your insurance. They can be very pricey.
Need a SLEEP COACH?
- Though daytime teeth grinding is related to stress, the nighttime version probably is not
- It’s probably a “parasomnia” related to sleepwalking
- You can’t really prevent your teeth grinder from doing it, you can only reduce the damage
- With time, teeth grinding goes away on its own