Migraines in Children: How to Help Your Kid Cope

For starters, pay attention to sleep + stress

Young girl with migraine

Migraines can be brutal, no matter how old you are. So when your child starts showing the telltale signs, you want to do something — stat.

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Affecting between 5 and 10% of children, migraines tend to rear their ugly heads during late childhood and early adolescence. But they can start earlier, too.

“Migraine is a condition like asthma or diabetes — people can have them for a long time, maybe even their entire life,” says psychologist Ethan Benore, PhD. “But they don’t have to suffer. Learning personal triggers and certain skills can help make the body more resilient to migraines.”

Origin theory: Migraine edition

No one knows definitively what causes migraines. One theory involves a process called cortical spreading depression.

“It’s almost like an onset of allergies,” Dr. Benore explains. “Something sets your body off. The brain cells then have a period of firing a lot, followed by a period of not firing.”

This leads to some of the nonheadache symptoms of migraine, such as seeing spots or lines, sensitivity to light and noise, dizziness, nausea, fatigue and confusion. It is then thought to lead to inflammatory changes that trigger the pain in migraine.

“The storm of the migraine, and its pain, then follow, because the nerves are very sensitive,” he says.

Four ways to prevent migraines in children

1. Identify potential triggers. Monitor your child’s headaches. When one occurs, think about what happened in the 24 hours before it began.

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Common triggers might be stress, insufficient or irregular sleep, skipping a meal, dehydration or eating a specific food,” Dr. Benore notes.

When you or your child notice a pattern, pay attention. You may be able to make simple changes that could reduce or prevent future migraines.

2. Don’t skimp on sleep. Lack of adequate sleep is a common migraine trigger. Help your child aim for 8 to 10 hours of shuteye each night. Older children should also avoid naps that last longer than 30 minutes and eliminate screen time at least 30 minutes before bedtime.

“Most children and teenagers need to start a relaxing bedtime routine to prepare them for sleep,” advises Dr. Benore. “Regardless of how relaxing they think sitting down and binge watching YouTube or Netflix is, they’re stimulating their brain, which makes it harder to fully shut down at night.”

3. You are what you eat — and drink. Eating regular, healthy meals and staying hydrated can prevent headaches in children. Dr. Benore recommends drinking the equivalent of four 8- to 12-ounce water bottles throughout the day.

“If a child is drinking a lot of caffeine, they’re going to need even more than that. Caffeine disrupts sleep, may increase stress and causes dehydration.”

Bonus tip: Dr. Benore says children should aim for clear-colored pee (if they’re not taking any supplements). If their pee is looking more like the color of Big Bird, then they’re not drinking enough water.

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4. Take a load off. Relaxation and stress management exercises are great migraine remedies. “Relaxation is like physical therapy or stretching for the nerves. We are trying to make your child’s nervous system more durable to the various stressors that hit it throughout the day,” relates Dr. Benore. “People who practice these exercises do better.”

Dr. Benore recommends trying these relaxation techniques:

  • Regular, slow-paced breathing: Fast, shallow breaths or very slow, deep breaths can cause a child to hyperventilate. “A slow yet comfortable breathing pattern relaxes the body. Your mind may wander when you do it — that’s okay. That’s the sign of a relaxed mind.”
  • Muscle relaxation: By tensing and releasing their muscles, children can learn to identify and relax the tension in their body.
  • Self-guided imagery: “I tell kids it’s like a mental vacation. You close your eyes, imagine where you want to be and build in as many senses as you can,” explains Dr. Benore. “They should imagine what they see, hear, smell and anything else that makes it vivid. If it’s a pleasant and relaxing scene, the body will respond.”

A child psychologist can help get your child on the road to mastering these techniques and others. “Cognitive behavioral therapy can help children understand how they think and behave, how that influences their stress levels and how to respond to stressful life events,” Dr. Benore says.

“When children learn specific interventions and use them regularly, they see significant improvement in the intensity and frequency of the headaches.”

Migraine treatments for children

While your child may become a prevention pro, migraines can still happen. When they do, these treatments may help:

  • Rescue medications: Take these medicines, such as non-steroids anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g., ibuprofen) or prescribed triptans, at the first sign of a headache. But kids shouldn’t take these meds more than twice per week, or they can end up with a medication overuse headache.
  • Food and water: Drinking or eating a small amount can help.
  • Quiet time: Resting for 20 to 30 minutes can help the brain proceed through a migraine episode. A brief nap can also help “reset” the system. If your child can’t sleep, try listening to music, an audiobook or a show at a soft volume. Distraction helps minimize the perception of pain
  • Other sensations: Coolness and pressure can also help distract from the perception of pain.

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