Screech! Scritch! Screech. The sound is unmistakable. The sound is alarmingly loud. And the sound is certainly distressing to parents. It’s the sound of their child grinding his or her teeth in the night. The sound is so loud that parents wonder if the teeth will shortly be worn down to nothing or worse yet, crack apart. Although teeth grinding (bruxism) in children is not fully understood, the good news is that new research suggests some underlying causes. More importantly, the research suggests that these underlying causes should not be ignored.
As much as 50% of children grind their teeth. Classically adult bruxism has been attributed to stress. This certainly can be a contributing factor for children as well. However there are a number of potential additional causes other than stress in children. New research shows that children with breathing challenges such as asthma, sleep disordered breathing, congestion, enlarged tonsils or adenoids, and even sleep apnea grind their teeth in an attempt to adjust their airway and get more oxygen. Additionally children with mucous buildup due to allergies may grind their teeth in an attempt to clear the mucous.
Other causes can be discomfort from cavities, loose teeth, new teeth coming in, exposure to second hand smoke, ear pain, and acid reflux. Some people also believe that intestinal parasites, vitamin deficiencies, or dehydration can lead to bruxism. Even genetics may play a part. Many parents of children who brux their teeth admit to the habit themselves.
Additionally, for some children there can be a neurological component. Children with special needs and those with hyperactivity disorders are more likely to exhibit bruxism. What many of these potential causes have in common is reduced oxygen intake during sleep. What all of these potential causes have in common is that they all lead to sleep disturbances and something called “micro arousals”. For people who brux, the magnitude of micro arousals is increased and 86% of these micro arousals are connected to bruxing. Any strategies to improve sleep may help reduce night time bruxism.
Tips to improve sleep
- No nightlights. Lights in the room disturb sleep patterns
- No stimulants such as sugar or chocolate after 3 PM
- No screen time two hours before bedtime
- Have child sleep in his or her own room
- White noise machine or relaxing music to muffle noises
- Limit drinks four hours before bed
- Limit foods that may cause more mucous buildup
- Talk to child about his or her day to see if there is any underlying stress
Whereas adults and adolescents can benefit from wearing nightguards, they are not feasible for younger children since children are constantly growing and changing teeth. If your child grinds his or her teeth on a regular basis, consider consultations with professionals such as a pediatric dentists, pediatricians, allergists, ENT physicians, and psychologist to determine any underlying causes. Also consider implementing strategies mentioned above to improve sleep.