Dealing with child migraines?

Child migraines can be just as frightening to parents as to children.  Do you think your child may have migraine? How can you tell for sure?

child migraine - there's hope!

If you would like to read more about general headaches that children get, read this article.

Can a child really have Migraine?

Yes.   More than half of adults who get migraine report that they had their first headache as a child.  Some research tells us that 5% of people suffer at least one migraine before the age of 15.  Of the children with migraine, about a third get migraine before they're 5 years old.  This means that migraine in children seems to be a much more common problem than most people realize.

What about infants?  We're not sure how infants process pain, though we do know they experience pain.  The study of infants and pain is still fairly new.   There is some evidence that infants as early as four months, and for sure by 2 years, suffer migraine attacks. We can tell because parents of older children who have been diagnosed with migraine remember the same pattern when the child was younger.

Child migraines, or just a need for attention?

Many parents mistakenly assume that their children are just trying to get attention, especially if a parent or friend already suffers from migraine.   Try to keep the following things in mind:

~ As was mentioned above, it is quite possible for a child to get migraine.  There is good evidence that some children may be genetically prone to migraine, so a child with a parent or grandparent who gets headaches may get them as well.

~ Dr Sarah Cheyette suggests in her book Mommy, My Head Hurts, if a child tells you she has a headache or other migraine symptoms, instead of focusing on the pain tell them that it will be "better soon."   Then begin to investigate on your own what may be causing headaches, or if there are any patterns.

~ Remember that stress can reduce your child's ability to cope with child migraines, so don't assume that your child is "just trying to get out of something."

~ Take your child seriously.  A headache can be a very frightening thing, even if it's not life threatening (which it usually isn't).  Listen to what she/he has to say and pay attention to what's going on. You know your child.

What should I look for?

If your child is suffering from migraine, most of the information on this website is true for them as well as adults.  However, children do react differently to migraine - their symptoms and ways of coping may look different than an adult's.

In children, some of the easiest symptoms to notice are a change of temperament (unusual temper or sadness), nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, and head pain, especially if it's on one side of the head (although in children it's more likely to be on both sides).  About 25% (but not all) experience visual aura.  See a summary of child migraine symptoms here.

Merle Diamond of the Diamond Headache Clinic has pointed to some evidence that children who get car sick may be predisposed to migraine. That's another thing to watch for in children of migraine sufferers.

The Migraine Action Association in the UK estimates that 10% of school age children there suffer from migraine. 85% of those miss about 13 days of school a year, and 57% say that their teacher doesn't understand. 53% said that their doctor didn't understand either!

If you're ready to go see the doctor (which you should, especially if the pain is new and has no obvious cause.  Of course if the obvious cause is serious – see the doctor!), here are some things you should be prepared to tell her:

How long do the headaches last? How often does the child get them? Have you noticed anything that seems to trigger the headache? Where is the pain, and what does it feel like? Are there any other symptoms besides the pain (ie sensitivity to light, nausea)? Have you noticed any other patterns?

It would be very helpful if you could begin keeping a headache diary. Take note of the length and severity of the headache, other symptoms, and what may have triggered it.

How is treatment for children different?

Generally speaking, most of the treatment we talk about on this website is viable for child migraines as well.   The first things that you'll want to look at are lifestyle adjustments and other non-drug treatment, such as biofeedback.

Most migraine drugs really haven't been tested on children properly, so you need to move with caution.   When it comes to drugs, your doctor will keep the dosages low, especially at first, while she monitors your child's progress.

For young children, aspirin is not recommended. Your doctor may suggest acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and anti-nausea drug (antiemetics), a sedative or an abortive drug such as Midrin.  If the migraines are very frequent most of the other options are open to children as well, though anticonvulsants are usually prescribed for adult and not child migraines.

A 2004 study was done with Imitrex nasal spray and children had hopeful results. Read the article here.

If you're giving your child "painkillers" or migraine drugs more than twice per week, talk to your doctor and look at other options.  Remember, when it comes to headache treatment, the keywords are patience and consistence.   It takes time.   Start with low dosages and take it from there.

Much more in-depth information on migraine preventatives for children here.

Learn more about pediatric migraine medication here.

What's the good news?

There's lots of good news!   First, there are many treatments that are very effective with children.  Don't give up!   Second, the headache may go away completely by the time your child reaches adulthood.  Child migraines may not all be lifetime migraines.

It's good for your child and for you to remember that thousands of people live very productive lives with migraine.  I know, I know, you've heard it all before and you're not impressed!   But your child may be interested to hear that Benjamin Franklin, Lewis Carroll and Julius Caesar were all migraine sufferers!  Sometimes pain itself can spur us on to greater heights, depending on how we deal with it.

It may help your child if there is something they can do when they get a headache to make it better.  Take a look at our page on home remedies, for example, and think creatively of some things your child could do.  Give them a feeling of control over what's going on.

There are some excellent resources now if you're dealing with child migraines . Already mentioned was Dr Cheyette's book Mommy, My Head Hurts. My favourite is Headache and Your Child by Dr. Seymour Diamond and Amy Diamond. These books not only cover general migraine information, but also give you specific insight into helping a child with migraine. Child migraines have challenges are thier own! has a section on child migraines written for (older) children. This basic information can help your child understand what's going on with them or with a family member.  It may also give you more ideas about how to explain child migraines.

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References: Mommy, My Head Hurts by Dr Sarah Cheyette; The Migraine Action Association Children's Project; Headache and Your Child by Dr. Seymour Diamond and Amy Diamond; Adult Drug May Help Children Migraine Sufferers by Micki Flowers 2004; article Migraines: What a Pain! Reviewed by Margaret C. McBride August 2004; August 2005 article by Sue Quayle, based on Dr Suzanna MacLennan's presentation on migraine symptoms in children.; The use of triptans for pediatric migraines. 2010