Deep, rhythmic breathing, softly rustling blankets, the occasional sigh: the sweet sounds of children sleeping are music to a wary parent’s ears, until the serenity is pierced by an unmistakable noise: the fingernails-on-a-blackboard racket of grinding teeth. When I tiptoed past my slumbering preschooler’s bedroom one night, I heard her peaceful sleep sounds shattered by the bone-rattling sounds of her tiny teeth, grinding away. I lapsed into momentary mom-panic: Surely, this will damage her teeth! Does she do this every night? Is she overstressed? Should I wake her?
Many parents will hear these unpleasant sounds at some point. A recent study in the Journal of Dentistry for Children found that more than a third of parents report the condition, known as bruxism, in their children.
According to Dr. Bynn L. Leroux, Associates in Pediatric Dentistry, “Bruxism is defined as the habitual, nonfunctional and forceful contact between the chewing surfaces of the teeth. It can occur while awake or asleep. The cause of bruxism is multifactorial and has been reported to include central factors, such as emotional stress, brain injuries, and neurological disabilities and morphologic factors, such as the patient’s bite and musculature.”
Daytime stress and medicines like amphetamines have been associated with bruxism. Dr. Clinton Young, sleep specialist, advises that, “Primary Bruxism–people with mental disabilities, restless leg syndrome, epilepsy, and sleep apnea–tend to have more bruxism. Secondary Bruxism may be related to a prescription, smoking, or caffeine.”
The good news is that teeth grinding is likely temporary, and, in most cases, does not affect a child’s sleep. “Evidence suggests that bruxism in young children is a self-limiting condition that typically does not progress to adult bruxism,” states Dr. Leroux. Most children outgrow this habit around the time when permanent teeth begin to erupt. Bruxism that continues into adulthood appears to be most common when there is a family history of bruxism and/or TMJ disorders. Due to the forces placed on the teeth, bruxism can cause small cavities to grow in a shorter period of time. Daily preventive care, including but not limited to brushing, flossing, fluoride intake, and routine dental visits, are very important to control decay in children with a history of bruxism.” If grinding interferes with sleep or if a child complains of pain in their teeth or face, a visit to a dentist is in order. A night-guard made of soft plastic may be prescribed to protect the teeth and jaw joints. Occasionally, grinding is associated with a misaligned bite. If that’s the case, a dentist will refer your child to an orthodontist.
According to local orthodontist, Dr. Michael Hiller, it’s not as painful as it sounds. “Three-fourths of all people with sleep bruxism are totally unaware that they grind their teeth while sleeping.”
Thankfully, my little bruxist has eased up on her nighttime gnashing. If I hear more teeth-grinding noises coming from her room, I’ll be better prepared–and I’ll worry a lot less. ■
If your child’s teeth have become nighttime noisemakers, here are some tips for coping:
- Do not disturb. Don’t wake a child engaged in nighttime teeth grinding.
- Stress less. Grinding can be associated with daytime stress, so help your children relax. Ask them to talk about any stressful events they may have encountered during the day, and encourage them to unwind in the hours before bedtime with a bath, books, and quiet activities.
- Early to bed. If your child’s sleep tank is running on empty, he may be more likely to grind. Sleep deprivation or overtiredness can exacerbate bruxism, so help him stay well-rested with a regular bedtime routine and an age-appropriate bedtime.
- Environment. Promote nighttime relaxation with a restful sleep environment that’s dark, quiet, comfortable, and free from distractions like computers, tablets, or television.
- Back off. Bruxism occurs more commonly during back sleeping. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends infants be put to sleep on their backs, but older children who grind may be more comfortable in another position. Sleeping on your back tends to promote touching of the molars which may cause the natural tendency to chew.
- Get moving. Encourage children to get adequate exercise. Physical activity helps them fall asleep faster, promotes deep, restful sleep, and eases stress, which can contribute to teeth grinding.