An Overview of Pediatric Migraines, Symptoms, and Treatment Methods

In kids, migraines often present with gastrointestinal symptoms

Pediatric migraines affect roughly 10% of children and can begin as early as the infant stage in severe cases. Older children can also get migraines, and up to 28% of teens get migraines.

Despite the prevalence of pediatric migraines, the symptoms can be hard to spot, particularly in younger children. Therefore, the diagnosis can easily be missed.

The symptoms of pediatric migraines are different from the symptoms of migraines in adults. If your child is experiencing severe head pain, along with nausea and/or vomiting, they may be having a migraine.

A white male child in bed holding his head; his blonde female caregiver is comforting him.

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It’s important that caregivers learn to recognize pediatric migraine symptoms because kids can have a difficult time describing the pain that they are experiencing.

Here’s what you need to know about pediatric migraine symptoms and treatment methods.

Causes of Pediatric Migraines

Pediatric migraines occur because of pain pathways in the brain that are overly responsive. In people who get migraines, these pain sensors can be activated too easily, which triggers an inflammatory response and causes blood vessels in the brain to become inflamed.

The exact causes of this neuroinflammation are not yet known, but there appears to be a strong genetic component. Kids who have parents with migraines have a much higher risk of pediatric migraines.

In a child who is predisposed to migraines, a pediatric migraine can be brought on by certain types of food, allergies, and other triggers. Stress is a common migraine trigger for both adults and children.

Keeping a journal to track your child’s migraine days can help you identify their triggers and find strategies to avoid them.

Pediatric Migraine Symptoms

Knowing the symptoms of pediatric migraines can help you get treatment for your child. In adults, migraines are characterized by a throbbing, one-sided headache which can be accompanied by neurological symptoms like vision changes.

Pediatric migraines look different. Children with migraines may or may not say that they have a headache. Unlike in adults, a child’s headache will usually occur on both sides, not just one.

In very young children, behavioral changes and gastrointestinal symptoms are often the most noticeable indicators of pediatric migraine.

Other symptoms of pediatric migraine include:

  • Headbanging: When pediatric migraines occur in infants, headbanging is often the only sign.
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms: Toddlers and school-aged children with pediatric migraines often have pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. If your child regularly has unexplained vomiting, it might be because they are experiencing pediatric migraines.
  • Behavior changes: Young children cannot verbalize that they are experiencing sensitivity to noise or light—which is common when having a migraine. Instead, they may do things to try to ease these symptoms, such as seek out a dark, quiet place. 
  • Swelling and discoloration under the eyes: Caregivers may notice these changes in appearance, which can be related to migraines.
  • Excessive thirst and more frequent urination: If your child is peeing more than usual, having accidents, or seems to want more to drink, this can also be associated with migraines.
  • Headache: While migraines in adults usually occur on just one side, the headaches can be on both sides when they occur in kids (though they might also be one sided).

Children can also suffer from migraine equivalents. These are conditions that occur without a headache, but that are still part of a migraine syndrome. Children who have migraine equivalents are likely to have migraines in the future.

Migraine equivalents in children and babies can include:

If your child has a migraine equivalent, you should speak with their doctor, especially if you have a family history of migraines.

The symptoms of pediatric migraines may change as children grow up. For example, teenagers generally experience migraine symptoms that are more similar to those experienced by adults.

Risk Factors for Pediatric Migraines

The strongest risk factor for pediatric migraine is having a biological parent who experiences migraines.

Among kids who get migraines, 90% have at least one parent with the condition. If you have migraines as an adult, there is a 50% chance that your child will have pediatric migraines. That increases to a 90% chance if both of a child’s biological parents get migraines.

 The other risk factors for pediatric migraines include:

  • Sex: Migraines are slightly more common in biological males before puberty. However, after puberty, migraines are about three times more common in biological females. Migraines in people who menstruate may have symptoms that are linked with their menstrual cycle.
  • History of colic: While the connection is not yet clear, research has found that people who have pediatric migraines were seven times more likely to have had colic as an infant than people who do not get migraines.

Lifestyle and environmental risk factors include:

  • Stress: Stress is a major trigger for migraines in adults and children. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help kids cope better with stress, which may reduce the risk of migraines.
  • Sleep: Too much or too little sleep can trigger a migraine. Making sure a child has a bedtime routine where they go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day can help prevent a sleep-triggered migraine.
  • Foods: Certain foods and chemicals, including chocolate, cheese, and yellow food dyes, may trigger migraines for some people.
  • Weather: Some people are more likely to get a migraine when the barometric pressure changes during or before storms.

Ways to Diagnose and Treat Pediatric Migraines

To diagnose pediatric migraines, your doctor will talk to you about your child’s symptoms. Your doctor may order tests to rule out other conditions (such as an MRI of the brain to look at its structure), but there is no test to definitively diagnose pediatric migraines.

Since pediatric migraines are often an overlooked condition, it can be helpful to find a healthcare provider who has experience treating them.

Treatment plans for pediatric migraines depend on how often the migraines change a child’s behavior and cause them to miss out on daily activities. 

 The possible medical treatments for migraines include:

  • Acute medications: These can include over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications and prescription triptans, which stop or lessen a migraine once it has started. 
  • Preventative medications: These generally are used off-label and may help prevent migraines. Examples include antidepressants, antihistamines, and anti-seizure medications. 

Pediatric Migraine Prevention

Making changes in your day-to-day life will be among the most important components of helping your child manage and prevent migraines.

Examples of lifestyle changes that you can work on with your child include:

  • Practicing good sleep hygiene: Aim for eight to 10 hours of sleep a night. It might help to have your child turn off screens and tablets at least one hour before bed.
  • Staying hydrated: Encourage your child to get 12 glasses of fluid per day. Avoid drinks that are sweetened or caffeinated.
  • Eating a nutritious diet: A child’s overall health is supported through a nutritious diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and quality protein. Try to limit processed foods and sugar.
  • Keeping a schedule: Having a routine—such as eating meals and waking up at the same time each day—can help prevent migraines.
  • Coping effectively with stress: Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help kids and adults learn to better manage stress (which can trigger migraines).

Summary

Pediatric migraines occur in kids and teens, but may start as early as infancy. A child who has one or more biological parents who get migraines is more likely to get migraines.

Pediatric migraines look different from migraines in adults. For example, kids often have predominant gastrointestinal symptoms and might not say that they have a headache.

As with migraines in adults, migraines in children can be managed with medications and lifestyle changes, which include identifying and avoiding migraine triggers.

A Word From Verywell

Pediatric migraines can majorly affect a child’s life. Kids with pediatric migraines are more likely to be absent from school, and their caregivers are more likely to miss work to care for them.

As a caregiver, knowing the signs and symptoms of pediatric migraines is important. Once the condition has been diagnosed, you can help your child learn to manage migraines with a treatment plan and lifestyle changes, like learning to identify and avoid triggers.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long do pediatric migraine symptoms last?

Pediatric migraine symptoms can last for up to six hours. After having a migraine, a child might feel tired for a few days.

What can I do to treat my child’s pediatric migraine symptoms at home?

When your child is having a migraine, help them find a dark, quiet space to rest, and also provide comfort. Your child’s doctor might recommend OTC pain medications or certain prescription migraine medications to help with symptoms.

When should I worry about my child’s pediatric migraine symptoms? 

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a quiz that can help you assess whether your child’s migraine symptoms are mild, moderate, or severe. In general, pediatric migraines are considered chronic if they occur more than twice a week.

If you’re worried about your child’s migraines or any other aspects of their health and well-being, do not hesitate to bring these concerns up with your child’s doctor.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Migraine headaches in children & teens: parent FAQs. Updated February 10, 2020.

  2. American Migraine Foundation. Understanding pediatric migraine.

  3. American Migraine Foundation. Treatment of migraine in children. Updated March 2020.

  4. Tarantino S, Capuano A, Torriero R, et al. Migraine equivalents as part of migraine syndrome in childhood. Pediatr Neurol. 2014;51(5):645-649. doi:10.1016/j.pediatrneurol.2014.07.018