What causes migraine headaches in children? Food, lifestyle and other triggers

Many parents want to know what causes migraine headaches in children and if there are ways to provide relief or potentially avoid them.

Kids can experience migraine just like adults do, and if you experience migraine, you know how helpless you can feel until it passes. It is thought that even babies can get migraine headaches. Many parents want to know what causes migraine headaches in children and whether there are ways to provide relief or potentially avoid them. The short answer is yes.

Migraine is more than just a “bad headache.” It’s a complicated neurological disease, with severe head pain and other symptoms including nausea and vomiting; dizziness; and sensitivity to touch, sound, light and odors.

“Identifying the triggers that could be causing your child’s migraine headaches are important,” said Elizabeth S. Doll, M.D., pediatric neurologist with Norton Children’s Neuroscience Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine. “By avoiding triggers and practicing healthy lifestyle habits, a child may not have to miss as many days of school, work, sports or other extracurricular activities because of their migraine symptoms.

Norton Children’s Neuroscience Institute

Your child’s pediatrician can begin treatment for migraine. For children with  chronic migraine, our neurology team offers additional treatment and prevention methods that are tailored to each child’s needs.

What causes migraine headaches

The causes of migraine headaches can vary, but avoiding certain triggers can be helpful when it comes to managing episodes. Common triggers for migraine may include:

Lack of sleep. Too little sleep or erratic sleep schedules  all can trigger migraine.

Stress. If your child gets anxious over big tests or life events, or they struggle with emotions, find resources to learn how to manage stress. Stay alert to what’s going on in your child’s life so you can help them navigate it.

Eating schedules and nutrition. Missing meals or eating at inconsistent times is a big trigger. Certain foods like caffeine or MSG (found in processed foods) can cause migraines, but every person is different.. Your child should stick with eating whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.

Lack of hydration. Your child should drink plenty of water throughout the day and not just when they feel thirsty.

Hormone changes. Natural fluctuations that happen during puberty or menstruation can trigger migraine headaches. Take note of these times to ensure your child is avoiding other migraine triggers.

Weather. Changes in barometric pressure with storm systems can trigger a migraine, along with extreme heat or cold temperatures, bright sunlight, and excessive humidity or dry air.

Another risk factor includes a family history of migraine. If one parent has migraine, the child has a 50% chance of inheriting them. The risk goes up to 90% when both parents have a history of migraine. In childhood, more boys have migraine than girls, whereas more teenage girls and adult women have migraine compared with teenage boys and men.

Understanding migraine headaches

Migraine headaches can last several hours. Severe migraine attacks could last a couple of days. Common migraine symptoms include:

  • Pounding or throbbing head pain, usually in one part of the head, that gets worse with movement
  • Vision changes, called aura
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light, sound and smells

Other symptoms associated with migraine may involve mood changes, dizziness, dilated pupils and confusion. Sometimes kids may feel “off” for a few hours or days before a migraine attack. They might crave different foods, feel thirsty, or be irritable, tired or even full of energy.  

Research has found that there are warning signs before a migraine starts. A study found that more than 40% of kids with migraine experience extreme fatigue and sudden moodiness up to 24 hours before their head starts hurting. Noticing these signs gives you a chance to start medication or have your child hydrate and get some rest, which could keep the migraine from happening.

Some kids get aura — this migraine symptom starts just before the headache and lasts up to an hour. An aura can include blurred vision; seeing spots, colored balls, jagged lines or bright flashing lights; and/or tingling in part of the face.

Relieving migraine headaches

Migraine attacks can typically be managed at home and with the help of a medical provider. A migraine diary can assist in identifying a child’s possible triggers or patterns to their headaches.

If a child is experiencing a migraine, cold compresses, resting in a dark room and avoiding triggers may provide relief. Over-the-counter medications include ibuprofen and acetaminophen. (Check labels first to ensure proper age/dose recommendations.)

Lifestyle factors (hydration, proper nutrition, stress reduction, exercise, good sleep, etc.) play a major role in migraine prevention. Several over-the-counter supplements have shown to help prevent migraine, including magnesium oxide, coenzyme Q10 and riboflavin. Learning how to manage stress through techniques such as biofeedback and controlled breathing can be helpful as well.

If a child continues to deal with migraine despite avoiding triggers or implementing healthy lifestyle habitsa pediatrician or neurologist can help with management. Prescription medications for migraine may include triptans, topiramate, amitriptyline and propranolol (beta blockers). Neurologists may be able to administer alternative treatments, including procedures such as acupuncture and Botox injections, or nerve simulator/neurostimulator devices.

What happens in the brain during a migraine

A migraine attack can be triggered by many things. These triggers can lead to a change in neurological activity in the brain that causes the onset of a migraine attack. This abnormal brain activity may trigger chemicals that can cause temporary changes to blood flow and inflammation in the brain, which can cause the painful symptoms often associated with migraine. Research shows that changes in neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine and glutamate are involved in the changes in brain activity related to migraine.

Once your child has been diagnosed with migraine and you know what to expect, the condition becomes more manageable and less scary. Here are some tips for getting through the pain:

  • Use medication prescribed by your child’s pediatrician or neurologist, or over-the-counter medicine as directed by a doctor.
  • Have the child lie down in a cool, dark, quiet room.
  • Show your child a relaxation technique: Relax all the muscles in the body, then stretch or contract the muscles, then relax; repeat.
  • Place a cool washcloth or ice pack on the child’s forehead.
  • Massage the child’s temples, neck or shoulders.
  • Offer ginger ale and saltines to help ease nausea.


Help is available for children who experience migraine on a regular basis. Check in with your child’s pediatrician. They can start treatment for migraine. If the headaches continue, your pediatrician can refer your child to Norton Children’s Neuroscience Institute for migraine treatment and prevention.