6 Parenting Tips for When You Have a Migraine

Strategies to help parents who get migraines.

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on February 12, 2012
5 min read

If you're a mom or dad who has migraines, you may worry about the impact your headaches could have on your family. Migraines can develop at the most inconvenient times, making it harder to juggle your parenting responsibilities. 

"When you're in the midst of a migraine, it can be difficult to function and take care of your kids," says Audrey Halpern, MD, a clinical assistant professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine. "Both the pain and the associated symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and noise can be debilitating." 

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to manage your symptoms and line up extra help when you need it. Here are some ways that Halpern and parents with first-hand experience say you can cope better with migraines while caring for your kids.

By planning, you may be able to reduce the intensity and frequency of your migraines.

For example, because skipping meals can trigger migraines, Halpern suggests packing a healthy snack in your bag for yourself -- just as you do for your kids -- when you head out the door. If you have trouble remembering to take your medication or eat a snack, Halpern recommends setting an alarm on your watch or cell phone as a reminder.

It's especially important, parents say, to make sure that you always have your migraine medication on hand in case you need it. Some find that if they take their medication as soon as they notice the first symptoms of a migraine, they can reduce its severity.

Erika Bowles, a mother of a 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter in Falls Church, Va., once got a migraine during a friend's baby shower. "My daughter was with me at the shower and I realized that I didn't have my medication with me and didn't feel well enough to drive us home," she says. Although Bowles' mother was able to pick them up, she notes, "I have never left the house without my meds since then."

If you're not sure of your migraine triggers, Halpern advises tracking your headaches on a calendar for a few months.

Record when you have a headache, your pain level on a scale of 1-10, what medications you took, and other factors that stand out, such as if you didn't get enough sleep. Women should track their menstrual cycle on the calendar as well.

"A lot of people with migraines can identify at least some of their triggers and then they can avoid those triggers or plan around them," Halpern tells WebMD.

Some common migraine triggers include lack of sleep, dehydration, stress, changes in weather or barometric pressure, bright lights, certain foods or alcohol -- and, for women, hormonal changes during menstrual cycles.

Some parents say that they can continue to spend time with their children when they have a migraine if they can find quiet, calm activities to do together. They caution that you should avoid places that are likely to aggravate your symptoms, such as a playground with bright sunlight and screaming kids. 

"There are days when the slightest noise hurts me, but I still want to engage with my 2-year-old daughter in a quiet activity like reading a book," says Mark Tippett of Herndon, Va. He has chronic migraines due to a traumatic brain injury he sustained while serving in the Army in Iraq. "We'll make shapes with Play-Doh together at the dinner table and it takes my mind off the pain."

Katie Biggs, a mother of two in Naperville, Ill., sometimes has a movie night with her kids when she has a migraine. Biggs makes popcorn and ice cream sundaes with her 18-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son and turns the living room into a movie theater. "We turn off the lights and have a movie marathon. I can stay with them, even if I'm laying on the couch with ice on my head," she says.

Rebeccah Graves, who has a 4-year-old and a 15-month-old, has her kids play with their toys in a childproofed playroom when she has a migraine. "I'll bring a pillow and lay on the floor as they play quietly around me," says Graves, who lives in Vienna, Va. "It's great to set up a safe space where your young kids can be entertained and you can be nearby if you're needed."

Whether your kids are toddlers or teens, parents say it's best to talk openly with them about your migraines. You can help calm any fears they may have when they see you having an attack and understand why your usual routine may change on those days.

"I think it really helps to explain your migraines to your kids," Graves says. If your kids are young, you could compare how you feel when you get a migraine to a time that they didn't feel well, she says.

When her children were younger, Biggs explained her migraines to them by saying they felt like getting an ice cream headache or "brain freeze" that doesn't go away for a really long time. "Kids understand that because it's something they've experienced," she says. "The key is to explain it very simply."     

For the times when a migraine makes it difficult for you to function, it helps to line up adults you trust who can potentially assist with childcare. Talk with them in advance about your migraines and the kinds of support you might need.

"Choose someone who is really reliable, has some flexibility, and has a connection with your kid," says Terri Miller Burchfield, a mom in Washington, D.C. and co-founder of MAGNUM: The National Migraine Association. In her own case, Burchfield talked with her daughter's nanny so she understood what to do. "If I came home from work with a migraine, she could stay later than usual and keep my daughter occupied," Burchfield says.

Biggs found that she can rely on her friends to help when her migraines are at their worst. "It's important to have people you can call for back-up and they know what to do," she says.

When Biggs returned from a hospital visit and was groggy from her migraine medication, for example, her friends came over to make dinner for her children. Another time, a friend took her children to the movies when she had a migraine. "Over time, I've been amazed by how many people were willing to help me when I just asked," she says.  

If you don't feel like your current medication or other migraine treatments are easing your symptoms, don't give up on exploring other options. "If you can find the right physician and get on the right medication, it's often possible to significantly improve your quality of life," Halpern says.

Tippet also believes you should stay optimistic that your migraine symptoms can improve once you've found the right treatments. "Learn about all your options and find out what works for you," he says. "It will make life better for you and your children."