Don’t panic. Bruxism, the medical term for teeth grinding, is fairly common in toddlers and not usually a cause for concern, says LouAnn Visconti, an orthodontist in Timmins, Ont., and the president of the Ontario Dental Association.
Why toddlers grind their teeth Some kids grind because their upper and lower jaws are growing at a different rate, resulting in an overbite or an underbite. Pain, from teething or an ear infection, can also lead some toddlers to grind their teeth.
If there’s no obvious physical reason for your tot’s grinding, then there’s a chance she’s doing it as a reaction to stress or anxiety. If there’s been a lot of change in the home, like a new sibling or a major move, your toddler might react to that by clenching her jaw or grinding her teeth in her sleep.
Finally, some toddlers grind their teeth simply because they've figured out that they can. They're intrigued by the new sound and feeling, so they try it out. This type of grinding rarely lasts too long, as it loses its novelty.
What to do about teeth grinding As a parent, there’s not much you can do about teeth grinding—nor to avoid it in the first place. “You can’t prevent a teeth grinding habit, it just happens,” says Visconti. Most grinding happens at night; Visconti points out that the motion you need to do with your teeth and jaw to grind is not very comfortable, and so toddlers will usually stop on their own. But if you do hear them grinding during the day, and the habit is continuing, it’s fair to point it out and ask them stop doing it.
The good news is, toddlers don’t usually need treatment for grinding, and will typically grow out of it by age six, around when their adult teeth start to come in and their bite evens out. If you think your toddler is grinding because of stress, however, try making bedtime as relaxing as possible, suggests Visconti.
Uncommonly, but in some cases, severe grinding in toddlers can lead to chipped or worn down teeth. If your toddler hasn’t seen a dentist yet, this is the time to make that first dental appointment and bring it up your concerns—the dentist will be able to see if there’s been any damage to the teeth from grinding. If the grinding is severely damaging the teeth or causing other symptoms, like headaches or ear pain, he might recommend a mouth guard, which would be custom-made for your toddler.
When teeth grinding doesn't go away Visconti says kids who don’t grow out of grinding by age six will likely grow out of it by age 10 or 12—but grinding later in life is more often than not a reaction to stress. If your older kid is grinding (or clenching her jaw), spend some time figuring out if there’s something bothering her—like a bully at school or a problem with a friend. Grinding and teeth clenching as an adult can lead to some pretty severe jaw pain and headaches, so it’s worth keeping tabs on this habit as your kid gets older.
But for now, you’ll likely just have to grin and bear it.