First the bad news: Those nightly hair-raising sounds are indeed coming from your child’s bedroom—from your child. It’s the result of them grinding their teeth while they sleep.
But here’s the good news: the only likely harm is a lack of sleep members of your household might experience because of it. Teeth grinding is so prevalent among pre-teen children that many healthcare professionals consider it normal. But that doesn’t mean it can’t become a problem, so it’s worth monitoring.
Teeth grinding is part of a family of dental habits known as bruxism. It involves any involuntary movement of the teeth and jaws outside of their intended functions not associated with chewing, speaking or swallowing. Our main concern with any bruxism is the possibility for generating stronger biting forces than normal that could damage teeth and gums and contribute to jaw joint problems.
Teeth grinding can occur in adulthood, with stress seeming to be the major trigger for it. With children, though, it’s believed to be mainly caused by an immaturity of the child’s neuromuscular process that controls chewing. As this matures, most children will tend to outgrow the habit none the worse for wear.
But there are pediatric cases in which the generated biting forces are strong enough to cause damage. Teeth grinding is also prevalent in children who snore or breathe through their mouths, which could be a sign of a serious health condition called obstructive sleep apnea. And certain medications used to treat depression and attention deficit disorder (ADHD) may also contribute to teeth grinding.
Most of the time we can simply let the habit run its course. If, however, the child begins to experience abnormal tooth wear, headaches, jaw pain or other issues believed caused by teeth grinding, we may need to intervene. This could include a plastic night guard the child wears during sleep that prevents the teeth from making solid contact during grinding episodes. And children with signs of airway obstruction should be evaluated by an ear, nose and throat specialist.
It can be irritating or even distressing. But your child’s teeth grinding doesn’t mean you should be alarmed—only that you should keep your eye on it.
If you would like more information on teeth grinding and similar habits, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “When Children Grind Their Teeth.”