Migraines affect up to three times as many women as men and are most prevalent in our 30s and 40s—prime parenting years. In fact, more than one in four women in her 30s experiences migraines. “The big question for many moms with migraines is ‘How can I raise a child when it hurts just to raise my head?’” says Jessica Ailani, M.D., director of the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital Headache Center, in Washington, D.C. The best answer, she says, is to educate yourself and then do everything possible to feel better. Although migraines have no cure, I’ve accepted that I need to actively manage them instead of wishing them away. Making a few changes has helped me be the best parent I can be—and it can help you too.
A Mayo Clinic study showed that most moms who have migraines admit that due to their headaches, they don’t enjoy family activities as much as they’d like, and 37 percent say the disorder has interfered with their ability to parent properly. One of the biggest bummers: Even when they are asymptomatic, many migraine-prone parents dread and even avoid family outings—like a sunny day at the beach (too bright) or a concert (too loud)—that could trigger an attack. If you have migraines, talk to your primary-care physician or a migraine specialist (you can search a national database at Migraine Research Foundation) to create a treatment plan that incorporates the following strategies.
Migraines can be brought on by everything from aged cheese to red wine to weather (particularly hot or stormy days, or when the barometric pressure changes) to certain scents, like those of cleaning supplies and perfume. What’s more, the “migraine brain” is hypersensitive, so irregular sleep or eating, as well as episodes of stress, can be bad news. “Migraines behave best when life is boring and predictable,” says Matthew Robbins, M.D., chief of neurology at Jack D. Weiler Hospital, Montefiore Health System, in Bronx, New York. But have you ever encountered a toddler who fits that particular description? To pinpoint your triggers so you can try to avoid them, keep a diary or use a tracking app like “Migraine Buddy” (free for iOS and Android). Tracking made me realize I often reach for an ice pack during thunderstorms, and once I knew that, my doctor prescribed an altitude-sickness medication that, to my surprise, eased my reaction.
A recent Stanford University study found that maintaining good sleep, exercise, eating, and hydration habits reduced migraine frequency by about 50 percent, and in a Swedish study, 40 minutes of exercise three times a week proved as effective as prescription medication at reducing migraine frequency. What’s more, three large meta-analyses found that people had a similar improvement when they practiced relaxation techniques, like meditation and deep breathing, as when they took a preventive drug. (Doing both worked best of all.)
“I find that moms often feel they need permission to take care of themselves,” says Dawn Buse, Ph.D., associate professor of clinical neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of behavioral medicine at Montefiore Headache Center. “I often write lifestyle modifications, such as practicing yoga or taking a daily walk, on a prescription pad to drive home their importance.” To jump-start a meditation routine, try doing three minutes of “square breathing” (inhaling on a count of four, holding for a count of four, exhaling for a count of four, holding for a count of four) a few times every day. An easy trick I use to stay well-hydrated: carrying a to-go cup with a straw instead of a traditional water bottle. It turns out that I drink more when there’s no cap to unscrew.
No one has invented a migraine magic bullet, so it’s important to personalize your drug regimen. “We often end up combining drugs as well as trying them in succession to see which one works,” says Elizabeth Loder, M.D., professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. OTC painkillers like ibuprofen or aspirin can end mild migraines, but many people see better results from triptans, a class of prescription drugs that work on blood vessels and nerve endings. However, research shows that both triptans and OTC drugs can cause “rebound” headaches (the kind that recur soon after your medication has worn off) if used too frequently. Unfortunately, it’s a cruel truth of migraine management that medication that makes headaches better in the short term can make you feel worse in the long run.
If you have migraines more than two days each week, a preventive medication (say, a seizure drug like topiramate or a beta-blocker like propranolol) may be helpful. Just be aware that side effects can occur and may include muscle weakness, dizziness, and nausea. Botox is also FDA-approved for chronic migraines. Allergic to triptans, Kimberly Walters, of Huntington, West Virginia, suffered for years until she tried Botox. “It’s a big struggle to be a stay-at-home mom,” says Walters. “Botox has cut the intensity of my migraines, so I don’t miss as many baseball games and activities.”
Lisa Jacobson, founder of the online-support community The Daily Migraine, recommends keeping a “migraine kit” filled with all the basic tools—medication, a water bottle, an ice pack, ginger candy for nausea, and peppermint oil to rub on your temples—in your car and in your purse. You may also want to preplan “migraine day” activities for your kids that will allow you to rest. It can be as easy as filling a bag with puzzles, Play-Doh, and markers, or buying crafting kits that you only pull out on migraine days. A baby or a toddler can’t be left to her own devices, so try doing yoga together.
If you’re on dinner-prep duty, you can make migraine days easier by having quick options at the ready. “I write out a weekly meal plan and always work in one or two super easy recipes—something like canned soup and sandwiches,” says stay at-home mom Carrie Lynn, a daily migraine sufferer in Phoenix. A lot of moms (myself included) find it hard to ask others to help, but it’s often the best choice, especially if medication makes you too drowsy to drive. “You need a network of people to call,’ ” says divorced mom Aimee Patton, of Overland Park, Kansas, who has suffered from migraines for nearly 30 years. To show her appreciation, she has sent her mother flowers and treated friends to dinner as a thank-you for driving her to the emergency room for an unusually severe headache. Whatever you do, let go of the guilt, says Dr. Buse. Having migraines is not your fault—and doesn’t make you a bad mom. Do what makes you feel better, and know you’ll make up for it when the attack is over. As I remind myself, my son doesn’t eat yogurt for dinner every night—and even if he did, there’s no point in beating myself up over it.
When you bring up your migraines, try to do so without mentioning your own fears. Children often react the same way as their parents, says Dr. Buse. Pick a time when you’re feeling healthy (no one is particularly articulate during a bad headache), and say something like: “When I have a migraine, my head hurts and I might feel sick to my stomach. It may be hard for me to look at bright lights and hear loud noises. But there are a lot of things that may make me feel better, like taking medicine and resting. You can help me by giving me a hug and playing quietly. Mommy will be fine. There’s no need to worry.”
Spend enough time Googling natural remedies and you’ll no doubt find migraine patients swearing by acupuncture or sporting a “daith piercing”—an earring in the innermost fold of cartilage (above the opening to the ear canal) intended to work like a permanent form of acupuncture. Are these treatments worth your time and money? Acupuncture is harmless and may even be helpful: Numerous studies suggest that it can decrease migraine frequency. But steer clear of the daith: It takes more time to heal than an earlobe piercing, and you could get an infection during the wait, says Alexander Mauskop, M.D., director of the New York Headache Center.