Identifying Migraine in Your Child

As much as we would like to protect our children from pain, the sad reality is that children are not immune from migraine. In fact, it’s more common than one might imagine, with up to 10% of school-aged children suffering from the disabling disease. Despite the numbers, many children are not getting the help they need, either because of lack of diagnosis or improper treatment.

Migraine is just as disabling for children, and can have a significant impact on adolescence. “Emotional issues and school performance are among the most common problems—they’re as troublesome for youngsters with chronic migraine to manage as for those who have cancer or arthritis,” says Marcy Yonker, MD, FAHS, at Barrow Neurological Institute at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

The trouble is that kids don’t usually talk about their head pain due to stigma or lack of understanding. Combined with the fact that migraine doesn’t always look the same in children as in adults, the behavior can come across as undisciplined or anti-social.

Headaches in children could last anywhere from 30 minutes to several days. Even if a child is too young to accurately describe symptoms, a pattern of headaches that are accompanied by nausea can indicate migraine. Other symptoms can be dizziness, problems sleeping, anxiety, depression, concentration problems, and fatigue.

After identifying that migraine could be to blame, the next step is to start building an understanding of what could be triggering the migraine symptoms, by documenting it in a migraine diary. “With diary entries, they can track when they have an attack, how long it lasts, what they were doing before and during the attack, what foods they ate, and how bad they headache was,” says Yonker.

Young children, may lack words to communicate what they’re experiencing, which makes identifying those triggers additionally important. Here are a few things to look out for that could be causing your child head pain.

Migraine Triggers in Children

Stress. Many children suffer from elevated stress levels, to the point that some schools are even starting to teach yoga and meditation. Encourage your children to decompress each day, providing a routine that isn’t too hectic. Relaxation techniques, biofeedback and other stress management tools do work in reducing the severity and disability related to migraines.

Sleep. From ages 3 to 5, children need at least 11 hours a night, and from age 5 to adulthood, at least 8 hours a night. Be firm about bedtimes, and if it’s difficult for your child to get to sleep, make sure that you stop all screen use for at least an hour before bedtime. It’s also a good idea to use a sleep routine, which can include a bath, a story, and listening to an audiobook or music.

Dehydration. The Mayo clinic recommends 5 glasses of water for 5-8 year olds, 7 glasses for 9-12 year olds, and 8-10 glasses for 13+ year olds. It’s a good idea to send your child to school with a bottle of water, and to provide water when you pick them up from school. If your child complains of a headache, many parents say that the first thing they do is give a glass of water and let them rest.

Many of those living with migraine report that their migraine started as a child. If one parent has migraine, a child has a 50% risk of experiencing migraine, and if both parents have migraine, the risk goes up to 75%.

If you have a child who experiences bad headaches that you suspect might be migraines, think about your own headache history as a guide to your children’s complaints. If you notice a pattern of pain behavior in your child, schedule an appointment with your pediatrician or a headache specialist. View our database to find a migraine doctor near you.