Parents have been chewing up a lot of my time with lots of questions about their children grinding their teeth at night.  Let me see if I can grind their concerns to a halt with some information on this problem.

The condition of grinding teeth or jaw clenching carries with it an interesting medical name: bruxism. It’s a term you may be unfamiliar with, but 30 percent of otherwise healthy children grind their teeth or clench their jaw while sleeping. 

What causes teeth grinding? Sometimes it can be due to a child’s teeth growing in improperly and problems arising with their bite. Other times it can occur due to stress or even due to pain from an earache or teething. We know this behavior can also run in families and has been associated with sleep-disordered breathing, such as when big tonsils obstruct the back of the mouth. This can lead to an increase in jaw- and teeth-clenching as children pull their jaw forward to keep their airway open.

So is bruxism a problem? If you are at all concerned about your child grinding their teeth, talk to their health care professional who will probably refer you to a pediatric dentist to make sure there is no problem with your child’s teeth or bite.

Sometimes a referral may be made to an ear-nose-and-throat specialist to see if the tonsils may be part of the problem. What will most likely happen is in the absence of a dental or tonsil problem, both your child’s dentist and health care professional will work with you to better determine if stress may be making the night grinding worse. Sometimes simply reducing stress before bed with a warm bath and a good relaxing book may be all it takes to reduce the frequency and severity of episodes at night.

The good news is in the absence of one of the dental or medical causes I just mentioned, which are not frequently found, this condition doesn’t hurt your child or their teeth and lasts for a few weeks or months before it simply goes away – usually before adolescence.

Hopefully tips like this will grind your concerns to a halt when it comes to knowing more and worrying less about your child’s teeth grinding. 

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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