- Teeth grinding or bruxism usually occurs at night during light sleep
- Most cases are mild and will not cause damage to your toddler’s teeth
- Bruxism can occur because of teeth misalignment, pain or stress
- If you notice other symptoms like headaches, facial pain, interrupted breathing or gum trauma, please seek medical attention for your toddler
Does your toddler repeatedly clench or grind their teeth in their sleep?
You might be concerned about this behaviour and have some questions like:
“Is it harming my toddler’s teeth?”
“Why is it happening?”
“Is it disturbing their sleep?”
“What can I do about it?”
Rest assured, we’re going to answer all of these questions in this article. But first, a little background info on teeth grinding:
The medical term for repetitive teeth grinding and clenching is bruxism . It’s rarely done while awake , and produces very little sound if done so. But, if it occurs during sleep (called sleep-related bruxism) it can make quite an unpleasant sound that may even be disturbing your sleep.
Bruxism happens involuntarily and can occur as soon as the upper and lower teeth have come through the gums.
It’s actually quite normal for the jaw to contract during sleep . But when these contractions are too strong, the grinding occurs - and the sound that comes with it. In fact, the force of the grinding is so strong that it “can exceed the amplitude of maximum bite force during the day.”
Will teeth grinding harm my toddler’s teeth?
In most cases, bruxism will not damage your toddler’s teeth. It is only in a few extreme cases where very regular, very strong grinding is occurring that dental enamel will be worn down.
So, what constitutes an extreme case? Well, if you notice a variation in bruxism from night to night, where some nights are much better than others, it is likely a mild case. Whereas severe cases might constitute one hundred teeth grinding episodes each night. In severe cases, when dental enamel is worn down, the teeth will eventually become shorter and more sensitive .
Instances of teeth grinding in toddlerhood tend to disappear as they age. A survey of parents with children under age 17 was conducted at 4 private pediatric dental offices and the Children’s Hospital Boston Dental Clinic.
The children’s mean age was 8.1 years, and the study was based on 854 surveys analyzed. From these 854 surveys, “ bruxism was reported to commence at a mean age of 3.6 years and ceased at a mean age of 6 years.”
It’s also worth noting that your toddler doesn’t yet have their adult teeth and will lose the ones they currently have. So when their new adult teeth come in, it’s unlikely they will be affected by this behaviour.
Why is my toddler grinding their teeth?
There’s no definitive answer on why children grind their teeth. But, studies point to a few possible reasons for bruxism in toddlerhood:
- Problems with alignment between top and bottom teeth
- They are trying to relieve pain - whether that is teething pain, or pain elsewhere in their body, like a sore muscle, or earache
- They are stressed to the point it is interfering with their sleep. Stress or anxiety tends to be a rare cause of bruxism. This is not usually related to everyday stressors, but major life events and trauma.
Interestingly there seems to be a parent-child link when it comes to bruxism. In the study we mentioned earlier in this article, “the authors found that if either of the child’s parents had a history of bruxism , that child was almost twice as likely to brux.”
Surveys and sleep studies have also found a link between bruxism and sleep apnoea . Obstructive sleep apnoea is when the upper airway is partially blocked, causing diminished oxygenation as the person tries to breathe.
It is not clear whether obstructive sleep apnoea is a risk factor for sleep bruxism or vice versa. However, sleep apnoea is more common in adults. If your toddler is snoring heavily, making gasping or choking sounds, or seems to have interruptions in their breathing while they sleep, please seek medical advice.
Is teeth grinding affecting my toddler’s sleep?
Most instances of bruxism occur during stages 1 and 2 of non-REM sleep. These are light sleep stages.
It tends not to interfere with the sleep of the child doing it (unless linked to an underlying sleep disorder), but it can interfere with the sleep of those around them.
If you’re bed-sharing or your toddler is sharing a room with their sibling, you may need to explore the issue further or look at alternative sleep arrangements to protect the sleep of your family!
What can you do about teeth grinding?
If your toddler is grinding their teeth while awake, try to redirect their attention so they stop doing it. Bruxism while awake is often done because they enjoy the feeling, but you can take heart that this is a childhood habit they should grow out of.
Milder cases during toddlerhood are generally kept to a “wait-and-see” approach . But, if your toddler continues to grind their teeth in their sleep as they reach school-age you should consult either your doctor or dentist for assistance. You see, if the behaviour is continued with their incoming adult teeth, they may have long-term consequences of this teeth grinding.
Once your child reaches adolescence and is still grinding their teeth, your dentist may recommend a night guard to protect their adult teeth from damage. The prevalence of teeth grinding during adolescence is thought to be around 15%.
The Dental Press Journal of Orthodontics recommends that if you notice your teeth-grinding toddler also experiencing any of the following symptoms , you should seek medical attention:
- Frequent headaches
- Signs of gum trauma like bleeding, redness and swelling
- Facial pain or discomfort upon waking
- Tooth sensitivity to either cold or hot foods
Only a doctor or dentist can diagnose bruxism. So if you have any concerns, please make an appointment or mention it at your toddler’s next health check.