What to Know About Postpartum Headaches

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on April 23, 2023
4 min read

The first few weeks after having a baby brings a lot of changes to your body. These changes can cause side effects like postpartum headaches.

There are primary headaches and secondary headaches. Both can happen in the postpartum period.

A primary headache is not caused by another condition. The pain can be hard to live with, but the headache is not dangerous. Your brain can’t sense pain, so the pain that you feel is caused by swelling in blood vessels, muscles, and nerves in your neck and head. There a few types of primary headaches, including:

  • Migraines: Typically felt on one side of your head, migraines can cause throbbing pain, nausea, and sensitivity to light, noise, and smells.
  • Tension headaches: These usually include pain on both sides and sometimes sensitivity to light and sound.
  • Cluster headaches: Often felt on one side of your head, behind one eye, cluster headaches can happen at the same time of day for several weeks.
  • Hypnic headaches: These occur at night, typically in people between the ages of 40 and 80.

A secondary headache is more serious. They usually come out of nowhere and cause severe pain.  It can be caused by another health problem that triggers pain in your neck and head, like:

  • Head injury
  • Neck injury
  • Brain infection
  • Brain tumor
  • High blood pressure
  • Aneurysm

Almost half of all women have a headache in the first few weeks after they give birth to their baby, and it's especially common in the first week. Causes of postpartum headaches include:

  • A sharp drop in hormones
  • Not enough fluids
  • Not eating enough
  • Not enough sleep
  • Muscle tension from pushing out your baby
  • High blood pressure
  • Preeclampsia (high blood pressure in pregnancy)
  • Sinus infection
  • Blood clot
  • Major bleeding
  • Having an epidural

The sharp drop in your estrogen and progesterone levels can also cause postpartum night sweats. A combination of hormone changes, water loss from sweating, and not enough sleep can cause a postpartum headache.

If you had headaches before being pregnant, are older, or have had many births, you might be more at risk of having a postpartum headache.

If you have a headache after having a baby, talk to your doctor to make sure you don’t have a serious health problem. There are some things you can do for postpartum headache relief, including:

  • Get more sleep
  • Eat a well-balanced diet
  • Drink more water
  • Use a cool compress or ice pack
  • Rest in a dark and quiet room
  • Take small amounts pain relievers, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Drink small amounts of caffeine
  • Get a massage 

If you're breastfeeding, it’s important to be careful about the over-the-counter medications and natural remedies you try. Some drugs can get into your breastmilk, which are then passed on to your baby.  Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are safe to take in normal doses, but it's best to talk with your doctor first. 

If your headache is caused by other health problems, your doctor might give you IV fluids, high blood pressure medication, or other pain medications that are safe for breastfeeding. They may also recommend you stay on bed rest.  

Sometimes headaches are caused by having an epidural. If your headache doesn’t get better with other treatments, your doctor may give you a blood patch to help. 

Postpartum headaches typically happen right after having a baby, usually within the first six weeks. Sometimes, though, headaches are a sign of something serious. Talk to your doctor immediately if you're experiencing other symptoms, including:

  • Loss of vision
  • Vomiting
  • Comes on suddenly
  • Severe pain
  • Numbness 
  • Fast heart beat
  • High blood pressure
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Major bleeding
  • Thunderclap headache, a severe type of headache that comes on suddenly and often causes nausea and vomiting

These are signs of a medical emergency and need immediate attention.

Hormonal changes are part of having a baby and not something you can avoid. While these changes might cause postpartum headaches, there are some things you can do to help prevent them.

Self-care. Eat a healthy diet and drink lots of water. Keep in mind that as you breastfeed, lose water weight, and sweat, you might be losing more than you are taking in. Also, if your doctor gives you medication, make sure you take it regularly. 

Try to get enough sleep. It’s hard when you have a new baby who can be awake a lot at night, but make a plan to nap while the baby naps. If possible, ask a partner or family member to take care of a night feed so you get more sleep and feel better 

Learn the signs of a headache. Know how your body feels before a headache comes on and make a plan with your partner for what you can do when it happens. 

It’s important to take care of yourself first so you can take care of your baby. If you have postpartum headaches, talk to your doctor to make sure it's not something serious.