Breastfeeding and Headaches: The Common Causes

A headache is a feeling of pain, aching, throbbing, or pressure in the head. There are different types of headaches and they can be triggered by any number of factors. Headaches can even develop during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Nursing women may experience a headache for many reasons.

When to Call Your Doctor

In general, headaches are just part of life and, at some point, we all suffer from them. Although it might be uncomfortable, if you get a headache once in a while, it's usually not a concern. 

However, if you're getting headaches more often than you did before your baby was born, or if you're experiencing headaches of greater intensity than you previously experienced, call your doctor.

Here are 7 common causes of headaches in breastfeeding women:

1
Delivery Room Anesthesia

Woman receiving Epidural
Delivery room anesthesia can cause headaches. BSIP/UIG Getty Images

You can develop a headache if you had an epidural or a spinal block during delivery. If some of the fluid in your spine leaks out during the anesthesia process and the level of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in your body goes down, it can cause a headache. In most cases, no treatment is necessary. Your headache should resolve on its own with rest and fluids. However, if it continues for longer than a day, your doctor may perform a procedure to help relieve the pain.

2
The Let-Down Reflex

Woman breastfeeding
Some women get headaches while they're breastfeeding. Joel Rodgers/Moment/Getty Images

Some women get a headache while they're breastfeeding. The let-down of breast milk and the release of the hormone oxytocin may be to blame. This type of a headache is called a lactation headache. Sometimes a lactation headache will resolve after a few weeks, but it could continue to occur until you wean your child. Early weaning is a concern with this type of a headache.

If you suffer from headaches while you're nursing your baby, talk to your doctor. An over-the-counter pain medication such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin (ibuprofen) may provide some relief.     

3
Breast Engorgement

Baby breastfeeding
Breast engorgement can lead to a headache. Alex Bramwell/Moment/Getty Images

A lactation headache can also develop if your breasts become hard, swollen, and overfull. Oxytocin, the same hormone that's believed to be responsible for let-down headaches, is also associated with breast engorgement. Try to stay ahead of engorgement as much as possible by breastfeeding or pumping often.     

4
Poor Nutrition and Dehydration

sandwich and food on a tray
To prevent headaches, get enough nutrition and stay hydrated. Tooga/Getty Images

If you don't eat enough, or if you skip meals, your blood sugar levels can drop. If you don't take in enough fluids each day, you can become dehydrated. Both of these situations can lead to weakness, exhaustion, and headaches. Try to maintain a well-balanced diet, eat at least three meals a day, along with a variety of healthy snacks, and drink plenty of water to keep you hydrated.

5
Fatigue

Exhausted mother
Exhaustion can lead to a headache. JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

New moms are tired and sleep-deprived. Lack of sleep and exhaustion can contribute to the onset of a headache. Try to put up your feet and relax a little, or take a nap when the baby is sleeping. You may be able to ward off the headaches if you can just get enough rest.  

6
Too Much Screen Time

Mother in front of screens
Spending too much time looking at a screen can trigger a headache. Catherine Delahaye/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Spending too much time reading or looking at the screen of your computer, tablet, or smartphone can tire your eyes and cause a headache. Get enough rest, take frequent breaks from reading, and limit your screen time to reduce the strain on your eyes and help prevent headaches. If you continue to get headaches from eye strain, see your eye doctor. You may need glasses or a prescription change.   

7
Allergies and Sinus Infections

Woman with headache
Allergies can cause painful sinus pressure and headaches. Tetra Images/Getty Images

Allergies, hay fever, and sinus infections can cause pain and pressure in your head. If you suffer from allergies, or if you think you have an infection, talk to your doctor about treatment.

Sources:

Agarwal S, Goel D, Sharma A. Evaluation Of The Factors Which Contribute To The Ocular Complaints In Computer Users. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research: 2013; 7(2), 331.

Lawrence RA, Lawrence RM. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Seventh Edition. Mosby. 2011.

Riordan J, Wambach K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2014.

Saada F, Mannel R, Krishnaiengar S. Subarachnoid Pneumocephalus: A Cause of Severe Headache as a Result of Obstetric Epidural Anesthesia (P3. 048). Neurology. 2015;84(14 Supplement):P3-048.

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