Lifestyle Habits for Managing Headaches in Kids & Teens

Maximize Relief Through Simple, Everyday Behaviors

Little girl playing board game with grandfather
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For some children and adolescents, healthy lifestyle habits are enough to prevent headaches or at least lessen their intensity and/or duration when one does occur. 

Other children and teens require medication to prevent or abort their headaches—and this is OK and reasonable if pain is affecting their functioning and quality of life.

That being said, these five lifestyle habits can only improve upon a child's headache or migraine management whether or not they are taking medication.

Habit #1: Eat a Balanced and Nutritious Diet

Fad diets and food restrictions are common in our culture today, and there is no exception when it comes to coping with chronic pain disorders like migraines or headaches. But for a growing and developing child or teen, restrictive diets are not a good idea unless a specific food has been identified as a trigger for that child, like tyramine in yellow cheese or chocolate.

Instead of focusing on what foods to avoid for a child, put your energy into ensuring your child eats nutritiously and regularly. It is especially important to be sure your child or teen is not skipping meals, as this is a known tension-type headache and migraine trigger.

Here are some tips to getting you and your child back on track in terms of healthy eating:

  • Choose a "rainbow" of foods, meaning an assortment of colorful fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, so that a child has options and their plate looks appealing.
  • Avoid processed foods—many contain food additives (for example, monosodium glutamate), and these additives can be headache or migraine triggers.
  • Choose healthier means of cooking, like grilling or baking, as opposed to frying.
  • Get your child and teen in the kitchen with you, or take a cooking class as an opportunity for quality time.
  • Make healthy eating a family affair—your child will want to eat what you are eating especially if it looks and smells delicious.
  • Talk to your child's doctor about seeing a nutritionist for reading food labels and planning meals.
  • Obesity is linked to more frequent and more disabling headaches in children—if your child is overweight or obese, please discuss with his or her pediatrician a plan of care for both their migraine and overall health.

Habit #2: Stay Hydrated

Dehydration is linked to headaches, so be sure to drink approximately six glasses of water daily. Along with the link between dehydration and headaches is the emphasis on drinking water—not soda, sugary juice boxes, or caffeine (a headache and migraine trigger in the long-run). Sports drinks may help your child or teen during exercise to keep sugar and salt levels normal, and they may be helpful during a headache (if too sugary, try diluting the sports drink with water).

It is also sensible to be wary of too much sun exposure, as this can trigger a headache—from too much heat, dehydration, or the bright light. If your child is going to be exposed to the sun, encourage him or her to wear sunglasses and a sun hat, as well as to carry a water bottle for intermittent sips (or chugs) of water.

 

Habit #3: Exercise

Regular, daily exercise is important for your child and may even improve his or her migraines or headaches. Remember too, exercise does not necessarily mean joining a school sport or jogging every day. Try to gauge your child's interests when encouraging exercise—there are plenty of creative options out there like ballroom dancing, karate, racquetball, hiking, and avoiding all elevators.

Habit #4: Healthy Sleep Habits

Maintaining a consistent sleep regimen is important for preventing headaches and migraines. Here are some helpful tips for your child or teen to follow:

  • Schedule a regular bedtime and waking time that allows eight to ten hours in bed (talk with your pediatrician about how many hours of sleep is appropriate for your child based on his or her age).
  • Avoid watching television, using the computer or phone, reading, or listening to music in bed
  • Consider using a visualization technique to fall asleep quicker
  • Eat dinner and dessert at least four hours prior to bedtime
  • Limit fluid intake within two hours of bedtime
  • Stop daytime napping

In addition, if you suspect your child or teen may have a sleep disorder, be sure to get it checked out. Treatment of sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea, or restless leg syndrome can improve migraine health.

Habit #5: Smell the Roses

This habit, unfortunately, can be the most difficult, as so many children and teens (and adults) are overscheduled. If you suspect that your precious one is overcommitted and stressed by it, now is a good time to cut back, for their overall health and their headache or migraine health (and for your sake too).

Going for a nature-filled walk, reading from a non-school novel, or playing a board game with a family member can do wonders for the soul. So, give your child the opportunity to be in the moment—a little boredom can be good every now and then.

A Word From Verywell

In addition to healthy lifestyle habits, there are other treatment modalities that do not involve medication like stress management, and complementary therapies like yoga and aromatherapy that can help ease your child's head pain.

Sometimes too, it's the simple things that provide the most comfort—a snuggle with mom or dad, a cold pack on the forehead, and a dark, quiet room where your little one can rest their busy minds and bodies.

Sources:

American Migraine Foundation. (2016). Headaches in Children FAQ.

Eiditz-Markus T, Haimi-Cohen Y, Steier D, Zeharia A. Effectiveness of nonpharmacologic treatment for migraine in young children. Headache. 2010 Feb;50(2):219-23.

Guidetti V, Dosi C, Bruni O. The relationship between sleep and headache in children: implications for treatment. Cephalalgia. 2014 Sep;34(10):767-76.

Kacperski J, Kabbouche MA, O'Brien HP, Weberding. The optimal management of headaches in children and adolescents. Ther Adv Neurol Disord. 2016 Jan;9(1):53-68.

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