Along with thumb sucking, childhood teeth grinding is one of the top concerns anxious parents bring to their dentists. It’s so prevalent, though, many providers consider it normal behavior—the sleep-disturbing sound it can generate is often the worst consequence for the habit.
But that doesn’t mean you should brush aside all concern, especially if the habit continues into late childhood. Long-term teeth grinding could eventually damage the teeth and gums.
Teeth grinding (or clenching) is the involuntary movement of the jaws when not engaged in normal functions like chewing, speaking or swallowing. The action often produces higher than normal chewing forces, which over time can accelerate tooth wear, cause fractures, or contribute to loose teeth, all of which could increase the risk of dental disease. While it can occur at any time it’s most common among children during nighttime sleep.
While stress is the usual trigger for teeth grinding in adults, with young children the causes for the habit are more complex and less understood. Most doctors hold to the theory that most pediatric teeth grinding arises during shifts from lighter to heavier, rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. The child’s immature neuromuscular chewing control may engage involuntarily during this shift. Teeth grinding is also prevalent among children who snore or mouth-breathe, or who take anti-depressant medication.
But as mentioned before, there’s usually no cause for concern unless the habit persists beyond about age 11. If the habit isn’t fading, you should speak to your dentist about ways to reduce it or its effects. One way is with a custom-made night guard worn during sleep. The smooth, plastic surface of the appliance prevents teeth from making solid contact with each other during a grinding episode.
You might also seek treatment from an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist if your child is having issues with airway obstruction, which could also relieve teeth grinding. And children experiencing stressful situations or events may find relief both emotionally and physically from psychological therapy.
At younger ages, you can safely regard your child’s grinding habit as normal. But if it persists, it’s worth looking for ways to reduce it.
If you would like more information on your child’s teeth grinding habit, 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: Is the Habit of “˜Bruxism’ Harmful?”