Headaches are common in adults and children. There are several underlying conditions and situations that could trigger pain in the head and other parts of the skull. Headaches can often be a nuisance and may interfere with activities, such as eating and sleeping.
While children and adults can speak of their pain, babies have limited communication skills. But do babies get headaches at all?
Read on to learn about the types, causes, and remedies for headaches in babies.
Do Babies Get Headaches?
Yes, babies could get headaches just like older children(1). One may not associate headaches with babies, but certain types of headaches associated with grown-ups, such as migraine, have been reported in babies as young as 18 months (2). A headache may feel different for babies than older children, depending on the underlying type and cause.
What Are The Signs Of Headaches In Babies And Toddlers?
Parents may suspect headaches in younger infants based on the signs and symptoms displayed by the baby. Below are the different types of headaches that occur in babies and toddlers and their associated symptoms (3).
1. Primary headaches
These are headaches that occur due to physical factors or conditions, such as muscle tightness, nerve pressure, or compression of blood vessels. Primary headaches are not a symptom of an underlying problem within the brain (4).
There are three types of primary headaches that occur in babies and toddlers.
- Tension headache: It is the most common type of headache in babies and toddlers. It is usually a result of emotional distress, physical exertion, or mental stress.
- Migraine: It is a severe type of headache usually associated with throbbing pain on one side of the head. Although they are associated with the brain, migraines occur due to problems with the brain’s blood vessels and nerves. They tend to be more common in boys than girls before puberty (5).
- Cluster headaches: These are headaches that occur for short durations, usually for 20 minutes to a couple of hours. The headache usually occurs on one side of the head, close to or under the eye. They are rare among babies and toddlers.
Below are the common signs and symptoms of primary headaches in babies and toddlers.
- Younger babies touch or rub their heads, usually with fussiness.
- Baby may pull the ear on the affected side of the head.
- Nausea and vomiting for no apparent reasons could occur in babies with a severe migraine.
- Migraines could make babies sensitive to light, causing them to blink eyes often or shut their eyes when close to bright light.
- Baby displays lethargy and a lack of interest in playing.
- Disinterest in eating.
- May try to sleep but does not appear to fall asleep due to constant restlessness.
- Change in sleep schedule.
- Babies with migraines could display more colic.
- Some babies with migraines may become quiet and listless.
- Babies with cluster headaches may display a droopy or swollen eyelid on the side of the head affected by headache.
- Cluster headaches could also lead to a runny nose. Severe cases may cause swollen forehead.
2. Secondary headaches
These headaches are symptoms of an underlying problem, such as infection or injury, within the brain or the nervous system. Secondary headaches tend to be less common but have severe complications if left untreated.
There are various signs and symptoms of secondary headaches, depending on the underlying cause. Below are some of the common and severe signs of secondary headaches in babies and toddlers.
- Constant and severe colic, making it very difficult to soothe the baby.
- Baby appears lethargic to the point of being unconscious.
- Frequent seizures and muscle spasms.
- Severe swelling of the head.
- Bulging fontanel on top of the head (soft spot).
- Recurrent vomiting and complete loss of appetite.
- Bleeding from the nose or clear liquid oozing from the ears.
These signs and symptoms can occur in other conditions. Therefore, consult a doctor promptly to determine the underlying cause. Some of the conditions that cause headaches, especially secondary headaches, could cause long-term complications if not diagnosed and treated early.
What Causes Headaches In Babies And Toddlers?
Below are the various possible causes of primary and secondary headaches in babies and toddlers.
- Common illnesses: A common cold, flu, sinus infections, or ear infections could trigger tension headaches in babies. Illnesses are the most common causes of headaches in infants. Many of these conditions tend to cause body ache, which may radiate to the head to cause headaches.
- Genetic factors: Migraines tend to run in families. A baby has a 50% chance of developing a migraine if one of the parents has it, and the chances increase to 90% if both parents experience migraines (2). Cluster headaches may also have a genetic origin.
- Stress and anxiety: Changes in the surroundings, the arrival of a new sibling, or the presence of a new caretaker may lead to tension headaches, especially in toddlers.
- Poor diet and hydration: Poor diet could cause low blood sugar, increasing the risk of a headache. Low water intake, especially in hot weather, could cause headaches.
- Poor sleep: Insufficient sleep tires the muscles and nerves, leading to a tension headache.
- Teething: Some babies and toddlers may develop headaches due to teething, most likely due to teething pain radiating through the nerves to the head (6).
- Medications: Some infants and toddlers may develop a headache as a side effect of medicines.
- Head injury: It is one of the most serious causes of secondary headaches. Open head injury wounds and injuries followed by bleeding are easy to detect. However, head injuries may lead to internal problems, such as a concussion or intracranial hematoma (bleeding within the skull), that could also cause headaches.
- Neurological infections: Several infections of the nervous system can cause secondary headaches. Meningitis in babies and toddlers is one of the common infections to cause headaches.
- Neurological anomalies: There are many neurological anomalies that could lead to secondary headaches. Most of these conditions are associated with the nerves or the blood vessels of the brain. A few common examples are brain aneurysms (ballooning of a blood vessel within the brain) and epilepsy.
The diagnosis of the underlying cause and its other symptoms could help determine the treatment. Treating the cause of the headache can make the baby feel better.
Remedies For Minor Headaches In Babies
If you suspect your baby has a headache, consult a doctor to diagnose the probable cause and rule out any complications. You may try the following homecare measures in cases where the headache is minor and due to common illnesses, such as cold, or stress (7).
- Focus on hydration and give the baby or toddler enough fluids, such as water, formula, or breast milk.
- Give them a snack to make up for any missed meal since hunger may cause tension headache.
- Keep the baby’s room quiet and comfortable at night so that they have a sound sleep and feel well-rested the next morning.
- Make sure your baby gets adequate naps during the day to prevent exhaustion by night.
- Soothe your baby with cuddles and hugs if they feel stressed for some reason. You may speak and reassure older toddlers.
- You may place a cold, wet washcloth on the baby’s head to soothe the headache. However, do not place it if the baby finds it uncomfortable. Some babies may find a warm, wet washcloth soothing.
- Provide teething babies with teethers or food items, such as teething crackers, that could help relieve teething pain.
If the headache seems severe, consult a doctor for medication. Do not self-medicate with over-the-counter medicines, including baby-safe medicines, such as acetaminophen.
Never administer ibuprofen to babies younger than six months and aspirin to children younger than 19 years (6). These medicines could have adverse side effects, including long-term damage to the brain and the liver.
Babies and toddlers can experience headaches, too. While they may be unable to communicate about it, parents could determine headaches through signs and symptoms. Most causes of headaches in babies are benign and can be managed at home. However, it is best to consult a doctor to rule out headaches due to infection, injury, or other neurological problems.