7 Reasons Why Kids May Get More Headaches at Back-to-School Time

Research shows that more kids get headaches in the fall.

girl with headache
More kids get headaches at back-to-school time; here's why. JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images

Have you ever noticed that your child gets more headaches at back-to-school time? According to new research from Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, headaches increase among kids in the fall, and that spike may be related to changes in routine and sleep schedules and increased stress when kids go back to school.

According to the lead researcher on the study, Ann Pakalnis, MD, an attending neurologist and Director of the Comprehensive Headache Clinic at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, doctors at the clinic noticed that more families reported that their child was experiencing headaches in the fall.

Dr. Pakalnis and her colleagues decided to do a retrospective chart review of emergency department admissions to headaches and migraines going back five years and found that the number of kids ages 5 to 18 who were treated for headaches increased in the fall. Interestingly, the doctors also found that there were no spikes in headache cases among kids in the other seasons. "We thought there would be a correlation and the science proved it," says Dr. Pakalnis.

What are the factors that may lead to an increase in headaches among kids at back-to-school time? Here are some possible causes:

"We know that stress is a factor in headaches, and the beginning of school can be a stressful time for many kids," says says Dr. Pakalnis. "A child may have a new schedule, a new teacher, or even a new school." When you consider the fact that a child may feel anxious about making new friends, getting good grades and meeting other expectations, it's not surprising that he may experience more headaches when it's time to head back to school.

Another common trigger for headaches is not getting enough sleep. In the summer, kids tend to stay up late and wake up later in the morning. Having to suddenly shift from going to bed as late as 11:00 or midnight and waking up late in the morning to a very different routine of going to bed at 9:00 or earlier and waking up early in the morning to get to school can be difficult for kids.

Kids will have a hard time adjusting to an earlier bedtime and will be more likely to be tired in the morning, which can increase the chance of headaches (not to mention crankiness, mood swings, and an inability to concentrate at school).

That's why it's crucial for parents to gradually get kids ready for back to school time before summer is over and switch kids to an early bedtime at least a week or more before the start of school. Kids should also practice morning routines and get used to waking up early in the morning to get them used to the fall routine.

Missing breakfast or lunch can also lead to headaches in kids. During the school year, there may be some mornings when it's all you can do to make it out the door in time for school and work. And kids may be too busy chatting with friends to eat their lunch during the day. But skipping meals can lead to headaches in kids, says Dr. Pakalnis.

To make sure kids eat three meals a day, have a fast and healthy breakfast ready that kids can grab and go, like a breakfast burrito or English muffin and egg sandwich the made the night before.

Remind kids to eat their lunch, and when you pack a school lunch, be sure to pack foods that are easy to eat and open. And as much as possible, schedule regular family dinners, which have been linked to positive benefits for kids including better grades, better health and nutrition, and strong mental, social, and emotional skills.

Between computers, tablets, video games, TV and cellphones, kids today are practically glued to screens during their waking hours. All that time staring at a screen can cause headaches, says Dr. Pakalnis. Minimize kids' screen time, and keep them off computers and tablets unless it's for homework, and try to keep kids away from screens too close to bedtime, which can interfere with them getting to sleep. Keep TVs and cellphones out of kids' bedrooms and institute a no-texting rule after a certain time at night.

When kids have too much on their plate and too little time to unwind, the result can be increased headaches. If a child is experiencing headaches or other symptoms that indicate that she may need to cut back on her activities, take a look at her schedule and see what can be put off or left for next year. After all, too much pressure and over-scheduling is counter-productive, and will only result in a child being unhappy and not performing as well as she'd like at whatever activity she's involved in.

Dehydration is another common cause of headaches in kids. It's easy for a child to forget to drink enough water during a busy school day. Help your child pick out a water bottle that he likes send it off to school. Or put alarms on his wristwatch that remind him to drink water several times a day.

Is your child getting too much caffeine at home or at school? If she's consuming drinks that contain caffeine, such as bottled tea or soda, caffeine could lead to headaches. Tell your child to stick to water or milk at school and keep track of the foods she eats at home (some foods, like chocolate, contain caffeine). And remind her to steer clear of beverages like coffee and especially energy drinks, which are loaded with sugar, caffeine, and unhealthy chemicals, and are especially unhealthy for kids.

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