When Your Child Has a Migraine


Susan Fishman

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Boy with hands on head

If you’ve ever had a migraine, or even a bad headache, you know the pain is something you never want your child to go through. But if your child does suffer from migraines (about 1 out of every 20 kids, or about 8 million children in the United States, do), there are some things you can do to help. The first step is recognizing when a migraine is coming, so you can take action to avoid them in the future.

It’s Different for Children

In general, both adults and children have some common symptoms when they are in the throes of a migraine, or as a warning sign that a migraine is on its way:

  • Pulsating, throbbing or pounding head pain
  • Extreme sensitivity to light and noise
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Pain that worsens with activity
  • Lack of energy
  • Auras (including blurred vision and/or seeing spots, colored balls, jagged lines or bright lights)

Your child’s migraine symptoms may vary from attack to attack. They may occur very occasionally or happen in a regular pattern, like every week or almost daily. Every child is different.

Though there are some similar symptoms between adults and children, migraines can be different for kids in certain ways:

Migraine in Adults

  • Usually starts early in the morning

  • Lasts at least four hours

  • Usually affects one side of the head

  • Comes on gradually

Migraine in Children

  • Often develops in the late afternoon

  • May last less than four hours

  • Affects the entire head

  • Can come on very suddenly

If your child can describe his symptoms, it can help you determine if he is experiencing a migraine. But even small children, including infants, can alert you to a migraine by crying or holding his or her head in pain. Sometimes the headache may disappear, but then your child feels sick or experiences abdominal pain. Often car sickness is a sign of migraines in children, as well as dizziness or colic as a baby, indicating your child may suffer from migraines later in life.

Some Common Triggers

Scientists aren’t sure what causes migraines, but some believe they are genetic. Your child may have inherited a nervous system that reacts to certain triggers in the environment, or to changes in her body. Some of the more common triggers include:

  • Stress

  • Certain foods (some common culprits are cheese, chocolate, ice cream, fatty or fried food, lunch meats, hot dogs, yogurt, foods with MSG)

  • Too much caffeine

  • Skipping meals

  • Too much or too little sleep

  • Weather changes

  • Travel

  • Menstruation (for older girls)

What You Can Do

The good news is many kids outgrow migraines. In the meantime, there are some things you can do to help prevent a migraine from coming on or control the painful effects if your child is in the midst of one.

  • Reassure your child. Children may feel confused, or “odd” or “different,” because of their migraines. They may miss school or miss out on certain activities. Talk to your child about what’s happening to his body and about your plans for preventing and treating his migraines. And talk to your child’s teachers to be sure they know what to expect and how to help your child during and after an attack.

  • Keep a headache diary. This can help you figure out what triggers migraines for your child. Track the date, time, what your child was doing prior to the migraine, foods eaten, any physical activity, and symptoms and how long they lasted. This information can help your doctor figure out the best treatment.

  • Avoid triggers. If you find that certain foods or stress are triggers for your child, do your best to avoid them (for example, if you know a potentially stressful day or situation is coming up, schedule in some exercise or relaxation time to help balance things out).

  • Encourage some shut-eye. Even as little as 15 minutes of sleep can help a migraine attack to go away.

  • Try some food. If food makes your child feel sick, try a drink with added sugar such as juice or a sports drink or a glucose tablet. The brain requires a continuous supply of glucose (sugar) from the blood in order to function, and if glucose levels drop as in hypoglycemia, it can trigger a migraine. The sugar from orange juice or a glucose tablet may stave off hypoglycemia.

  • Relieve the tension. Sometimes reducing physical tension (like from carrying a heavy backpack) can help prevent a migraine attack. Massage and physical therapy are often used to help muscle pain in the neck and shoulder, and some doctors may also suggest biofeedback, a technique that uses the brain to relax, remain calm and gain control over certain body functions.

  • Give medication. Your doctor may suggest medicine to help prevent your child’s migraines, or make symptoms less severe. These might include pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, medicines to help with nausea and vomiting, or sedatives to help your child sleep.

When to See a Doctor

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if your child is suffering from a migraine or something else, such as an allergy or sinus condition. If your child complains of a headache, or you suspect a migraine, it’s important to see a doctor to rule out other possible causes.

Talk to your child’s doctor if the migraine symptoms seem to be getting worse, lasting longer or happening more often. You should also see a doctor if your child has any problems with balance, or if symptoms interfere with school or other activities. With the right treatment, and ongoing management, your child can live free of migraine pain.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: May 4, 2016

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