Migraines in Children - What's Different?

Migraines in children are a lot different to adults. Children experience somewhat different symptoms than adults and they are much shorter in duration.

Migraines in Children

Babies and toddlers can get migraines, especially if one or both parents have a history of migraines themselves, or have a family history of migraines.

In babies and toddlers, the headaches can be caused by infections.

Ask yourself this next time you see a baby hitting their head against the crib. 

Puberty, however, is the most typical time for symptoms to start causing problems like migraines in children.

The changes in hormones, for which we have no control over, can wreak havoc for teenagers.

Types of Migraines Kids Have

  • Exertion migraines – from physical activity

These four are rare, but they are also found in children:

  • Cluster headaches – severe one-sided pain located around the eye that last approximately 30 minutes. A runny nose and tearing up in the one eye is common.
  • Hemiplegic migraines; and
  • Ophthalmoplegic migraines.

Their Symptoms are Different Compared to Adults

  • Throbbing or dull pain on both sides of the head, typically across the forehead (adults are most typically one sided)
  • Can be accompanied by nausea leading to vomiting, but more typically is not. Watch for stomach aches.
  • Pain usually lasts one to three hours
  • Irritability
  • Glassy eyes
  • Food cravings
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Dizzy spells
  • Diarrhea
  • Pale appearance
  • Fever
  • Visual disturbances (flashing lights and tunnel vision)
  • Noise or light sensitivities

Before the age of 10 boys get more migraines than girls. After puberty girls get more migraines than boys.

If They Can't Talk - Get Them to Draw

I have read many times now that it is really good to get your child to draw the headache if they are a little lost for words.

Talk with your child about the picture. Ask questions.

This will help you both form your own vocabulary to use around the pain and its description.

Take the picture to the doctor with you to assist in getting the right diagnosis.

Please click on the underlined link to see the difference between tension headaches in children versus migraines in children, it has some suggestions for prevention and alerts you to changes to watch for.

Factors That Trigger Migraines in Children

Boys have more headaches than girls before puberty. After puberty girls tend to get more migraines, and some kids are even lucky enough to outgrow them. Ah but to dream!

Food triggers have also been connected to “join ranks with hormones and cause a migraine”.

Here are the most obvious ones:

• Caffeine and food
• Sugary  foods
• Skipped meals, cravings or loss of appetite
• Food allergies

Also external factors like:

• Too much physical exertion
• Anxiety, stress or excitement
• Disturbed and erratic sleep patterns – getting too much or too little sleep.

Migraines for Dummies says that half of migraines in children are from fever, virus and infections. So this means that the migraine will disappear when your doctor treats the infection or mumps, measles, ear infection, etc.

The other half is linked to physical over exertion and the menstruation cycle in teenage girls. If it’s not that simple, and they recur, then you and your doctor can consider a treatment program and drug therapy.

Other environmental allergies and foods are common migraine triggers that will need to be avoided. Watch for: asthma, chronic ear infections, rashes or hives, runny nose, sneezing, sinusitis, and sore throats.

Using a journal is the easiest way to keep track of your child’s triggers and discover if there are any patterns involved.

What You Can Do Now

There is not much we can do about our hormones changing, so let’s look at what you can do to help with migraines in children. You can make sure your child is warming up before they exercise, and staying hydrated during any activity.

It is OK to take acetaminophen or ibuprofen before the activity or to find a more gentle form of exercise, like walking, yoga, Tai chi, or cycling instead of the overexertion of say soccer.

Keep a regular eating and sleep routine. Make healthy lifestyle choices. Avoid caffeinated and sugary drinks and make sure he/she is getting 8 to 9 hours of sleep each and every night. Our sleep is SO important.

You may need to alter this sleep pattern, especially if too much or too little sleep becomes a trigger. It is best to wake up and go to bed at the same times in order for form a routine. Even on weekends.

Talk with your child about emotional health, and teach him or her to deal with everyday stresses that arise, along with the disruptions that migraines will inevitably bring.

Use our migraine journal or migraine diary and see the list below for other areas you can print off forms that might help. You may also want to address excitement as that can also become a migraine trigger.

You already know this one, but reduce their sugar intake. Even too much fruit can cause a sugar overload and then a crash.

You might like to read to them while they rest, if they can tolerate sound.

Treatments for Migraines in Children

Take Medications at the Earliest Sign of Migraine Attack

The most effective migraine abortive medication has now been approved for the use in childhood migraines.

  • Maxalt® (Rizatriptan) was officially approved by the FDA for use in children that are 6 years old and older.
  • Axert® (Almotriptan malate) was also approved for children from the age of 12 and up.

This is great news for moms and dads with children who suffer with migraine attacks.

Besides the newly approved abortive medications, there are a lot of things you can do for migraines in children to find a solution to reducing pain and discomfort.

An ice pack and being tucked into bed might be the very first thing to do.

There are home remedies for a natural approach:

  • I highly recommend finding a triptan that works if your child is over 6 years old, and then 
  • daily prophylactic medications.

There are also abdominal migraine treatments and progressive muscle relaxation techniques that are very effective for children.

Let Them Sleep It Off

According to numerous doctors and websites, migraines in children are most commonly and most often totally relieved by deep sleep.

According to Migraines for Dummies if your child does not get relief or cannot sleep off the pain, your options are over the counter (OTC) medications, and if they do not provide relief the next step is prescription drugs.

If your child experiences nausea and vomiting, you may need to consider the rectal suppositories for migraines, by prescription only.

Finding the right treatment is crucial to help your son or daughter learn to manage their headache episodes in order to also find enjoyment in everyday life.

Their lives will be more disrupted than normal kids, and they may get upset about this fact. Learning how to deal with missing soccer games, or piano practice will be part of what you will need to teach them in order to manage their condition.

As a parent, you, your child and your doctor must discover the triggers to avoid, find the most immediate and effective pain relief and consider taking preventative prophylactic drugs for childhood migraines on a regular basis to deal with the condition.

Hang in There

Dealing with migraines Is difficult and you may have to make some big changes in lifestyle.

”About 65-80% of children with migraines interrupt their normal activities because of the symptoms. In one study of 970,000 self-reported migraineurs aged 6-18 years, 329,000 school days were lost per month” (webmd.com).

Migraine is often considered to be a harmless condition, but the truth is that they cause, not only a lot of physical pain and suffering, but also a lot of emotional side effects and pain that disrupt the flow of everyday.

There are ways to improve the quality of your child’s life despite having migraines. He or she can still be an active participant in their own life.

It might just take a little more planning and self care than originally thought. You can do that.

› Migraines in Children: What is Different?


1. Lance, Dr. James W. (1993) Migraines and Other Headaches. Compass Publishing Co. Pty. Limited, Australia. p. 46.

2. Stafford, D. and Shoquist, J. MD. (2003) Migraines for Dummies. Wiley Publishing, Inc: New York. pp. 241-260.

3. Dr. Senelick at Webmd.com (2010) Migraines in Children. [Online], Available at: http://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/migraines-in-children. Accessed Jul 2016.

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