Baby Care

Why Is My Toddler Grinding Her Teeth and What Can I Do About It?

Teeth grinding — or, as dentists refer to it, bruxism — is very common among 2- and 3-year-olds, even if parents aren’t always aware that it’s happening. In fact, about one-third of kids under age 5 grind their teeth. The good news? Most outgrow the habit by the time they’re 6 years old.[1]

Here’s what you need to know if you notice your toddler grinding her teeth, including signs it’s happening, causes and underlying health conditions that may be behind the habit, and what to do about it.

What is teeth grinding in toddlers?

Bruxism is the official term for teeth grinding (in toddlers and adults). It involves grinding the teeth or clenching the jaw in a repetitive motion. Toddlers might move their jaws from side to side as a result of teething or improper tooth alignment, or they may just clamp down tightly.

It’s more common for toddlers to grind their teeth at night, when they’re sleeping. But teeth grinding can also happen during the day. Most of the time, your toddler doesn’t even know she’s grinding her teeth, much like other unconscious, repetitive toddler habits such as nail biting

Bruxism can cause complications, so it’s important to speak to your child’s pediatrician or dentist if you spot your toddler grinding her teeth.

If your toddler is grinding her teeth constantly, she could begin to wear down her tooth enamel or hurt her jaw. Over time, this can make her teeth sensitive to cold foods or even cold air, and those pearly whites can become porous, which can lead to tooth decay

Why is my toddler grinding her teeth?

In many cases, there’s no obvious reason why your cutie is grinding her teeth. But there are some possible explanations, including health-related causes to look out for:[2]

  • Her mouth feels different.Baby teeth start appearing during your child’s first year and continue coming in until around age 3. During this time, your child may want to explore the feeling of her new teeth. Teething is also painful, and your tot may want to scratch the achy gums with the teeth she has. 
  • Boredom. Your toddler may grind her teeth while strapped to her car seat without much to do. Or vice versa: Perhaps she moves her jaws back and forth because she’s super focused as she does a puzzle or listens to a story. She may even find it fun: It makes a cool sound (at least if you’re a toddler!).
  • Her tooth alignment is off. Improper tooth alignment is a common cause of toddler teeth grinding. Sometimes the upper and lower teeth don’t line up as they should, which can happen because of crooked or crowded teeth, or jaw misalignment.).
  • She snores. Some research suggests a link between bruxism and children who snore, breathe more frequently through their mouths or have nightmares.[3]
  • Your child is stressed. Stress and anxiety can also cause a child to grind her teeth. However, it’s important to mention that even though stress may be a contributing factor, teeth grinding hasn’t been linked to a behavior or personality problem, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes).[4]

Signs my toddler is grinding her teeth

Many times, parents are the last to know about teeth grinding. So don’t feel badly if your child’s dentist or pediatrician points it out to you. There are clues you can look for, though:

  • You hear squeaking, popping or crunching noises at night, or during the day when, for instance, your child is either focused or bored. 
  • You see her jaws moving slightly when you glance at her in the rearview mirror when she’s in the car seat, for example, or look down at her while she’s in her stroller.
  • Her teeth have gotten flatter. This may take some detective work. But if you think her front teeth look a little shorter or flatter, look at a photo you took six months earlier to compare. 
  • Your child complains that her ear hurts, but there’s no sign of an ear infection or inflammation when you go to the pediatrician. These phantom earaches can be a sign of toddler teeth grinding. So can headaches. 

Still, most toddler teeth grinding is caught by a dentist. That’s just one reason why it’s so important for your toddler to see a dentist regularly, starting at age 1, or within six months of her first tooth coming in.

Treatments for teeth grinding in toddlers

The good news is that most toddlers grow out of the teeth grinding habit by around age 6. In the meantime, there a few ways to stop or temporarily pause toddler teeth grinding depending on the cause, says Michelle Kelman, D.D.S., a pediatric dentist in Los Angeles, California, and a member of the What to Expect Medical Review Board:

  • Rule out any underlying issues, like sleep apnea if you notice your child is a restless sleeper, snores or breathes through her mouth. Maybe you’ll need to see an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) or sleep specialist. Or if you suspect your child is super stressed, the pediatrician or a child psychologist might have some tips for handling anxiety-producing situations.
  • Try a jaw massage if you see those little jaws moving back and forth. Lightly rub both sides of your child’s jaws. That may distract her from grinding. And relieve any pressure if she’s clenching her jaw. You can do this even while she’s asleep, Dr. Kelman says.
  • Teach her to relax her mouth if she’s a night grinder. Tell your child to put her lips together but keep her teeth apart and breathe through her nose. That can have a calming effect and keep pressure off her teeth.

Some dentists prescribe night guards for 4-year-olds. But many wait until a child’s permanent teeth start coming in around age 6 or 7. Older kids may be more likely to keep the night guard in their mouths as they sleep.

When does teeth grinding stop in children?

Many kids stop grinding their teeth around age 6, and most stop by ages 9 or 10.[5] By that time, most of your child’s permanent teeth will have come in. 

If improper tooth alignment has been contributing to your child’s bruxism, her dentist can usually begin to fix an uneven bite when she’s in elementary school.

When to call the dentist or doctor

It’s always a good idea to bring it up to the pediatrician or dentist if you notice your toddler grinding her teeth before they do. That way, your health care providers can rule out any underlying health or sleep issues,  or at least keep an eye on your tot’s teeth and catch any problems before they become serious.  

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