There are certain physical ailments we assume only plague adults or older children. You don't ever hear about a toddler throwing their back out, for example. (Probably because their bones are made of rubber.) Likewise, toddlers don't often moan about their heartburn. But what about headaches? Can toddlers get headaches?
Dr. Jennifer Trachtenberg is a pediatrician and Spokesdoctor for the American Academy of Pediatrics. And she says yes — humans of all ages can get headaches. "Headaches can be from a variety of reasons," she explains. "Being overtired, stress, dehydration, bumps, bruises, lack of sleep, hunger, or an infection, like a virus or strep throat."
Another possible culprit? Food. Pediatrician Dr. Anna Mendenhall wrote that headaches in toddlers can sometimes mean they are hungry and need a snack — pronto. Or it could mean they've consumed something that actually triggered a headache. Dr. Mendenhall wrote that some commonly reported food triggers are "bananas, strawberries, chocolate, strongly flavored cheeses, and Asian foods with MSG."
No doubt the next question on the tip of parents' tongues is: "But how do I know my kid has a sore noggin?" Which is a valid question, considering that your toddler might not yet have the verbal skills to come to you and say, "Dad! My head is killing me! Where's the Advil?"
But even if your kid doesn't have the words to express their discomfort, Dr. Jen says toddlers might communicate a headache in other ways. "They might have tantrums or cry. Or you might notice a change in behavior." Or they might even do what most of us want to do when we have a headache: "hold their head with their hands and just lie down on the floor."
As for how to give a bit of relief to the child, the methods are pretty much the same as what you'd do for your own headache. Dr. Whitney Casares is a pediatrician (and the author of The New Baby Blueprint: Caring for You and Your Little One), and she says the first line treatment for a toddler headache should be water and rest. She says pain relievers like Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen can also be used to treat toddler headaches, but to "check with your child’s pediatrician if you’re needing these to quell your child’s symptoms consistently."
On that note — should parents ever be concerned about their toddler's headaches? Well, yes, there are some instances when a headache could be a red flag for a more serious issue. Casares says that if headaches "come on suddenly, wake toddlers from sleep, happen after a head injury, or are associated with a stiff neck, persistent vomiting, lethargy, or other extreme behavioral changes," then parents should absolutely consult a doctor.
But more often than not, headaches aren't serious. According to the National Headache Foundation: "Most headaches are tension-type, the result of good and bad stress, sleep issues, or, in a few instances, environmental or food triggers. About 5% of recurrent headache will be diagnosed as migraine disease."
So while a toddler headache might be distressing for both the child and the parents, the problem can likely be cured with a sippy, a snack, or a snooze.
- Dr. Jennifer Trachtenberg, pediatrician and assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
- Whitney Casares, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.A.P. is the author of The New Baby Blueprint: Caring for You and Your Little One.