Headaches in children factsheet


Headaches are a very common type of pain experienced by children and teenagers. 

Most headaches come from the nerves, blood vessels, and muscles that cover a person’s head and neck. When the muscles or blood vessels swell or tighten, they put pressure on the nerves. The nerves communicate this pressure to the brain, and the brain produces the feeling of pain in and around the head.

Migraines are a separate condition to general headaches.

 Signs and symptoms

Pain from a headache is usually around the head and neck. It can feel like:

  • tight band around the head
  • squeezing
  • sharp
  • throbbing
  • a general ache.

See your local doctor if your child’s headache:

  • is getting worse
  • keeps coming back
  • wakes them from sleep or stops them from getting to sleep
  • causes them to miss school or other activities
  • happens early in the morning
  • causes vomiting
  • happens every day, all through the day
  • does not get better with over-the-counter medicine, like paracetamol.

Go to your nearest emergency department if your child is under 5 years of age, or if you notice that your child is:

  • walking differently
  • falling over
  • weaker
  • complaining of dizziness or numbness
  • experiencing changes in their behaviour
  • losing motor skills, for example dropping or bumping into things.


A doctor will be able to diagnose a headache based on your child’s medical history, any signs or symptoms and a physical check. The doctor may send your child for scans like a CT scan or MRI to check their head, or they may refer you to a specialist doctor.


If your child is having occasional headaches, you can try managing it at home by:

  • making sure they are eating and drinking well
  • making sure they are resting
  • placing a cool, wet cloth on their forehead
  • using gentle massage or stretching of the head and neck muscles
  • distracting them from pain with an enjoyable activity such as art or music.

If these strategies do not work, try some over the counter pain medicine such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Follow the instructions on the packet closely and see your local doctor if the headache does not go away after 2 days or gets worse.

Do not use aspirin for headaches in children.

If your child has headaches that keep coming back, you can keep a headache diary to track any headache patterns and whether the treatments are effective for your child.


Impact of persistent headaches

Persistent headaches are headaches that keep coming back, or last for a long time. They can be disruptive for children and impact things like:

  • school attendance and performance
  • social activities
  • sleep
  • mood
  • appetite
  • family relationships. 

See your local doctor if your child has persistent headaches.

Medicine for pain management

Over-the-counter pain medicines like paracetamol and ibuprofen can be used to manage persistent headaches.

Sometimes children will need stronger pain relief for headaches, depending on what is causing them. Discuss pain relief options with your child’s doctor.

Movement for pain management

Children with persistent headaches may want to avoid movement and activity because of the pain. They may also want to stay home from school and sport more often.

Movement is very important for general well-being. Regular physical activity helps improve:

  • strength
  • fitness
  • energy
  • mood
  • sleep
  • stress management

Physical activity can also reduce sensitivity to pain by helping the body to release endorphins. Endorphins are hormones (chemicals) the body releases during enjoyable activities to relieve pain and stress.

Reducing movement in response to persistent headache can sometimes make the pain worse. If your child has had a long break from movement and activity, it is important to start slowly and be gentle, while also taking regular, short breaks. They can increase the amount of activity as they start to feel better.

If your child is experiencing headache due to tight muscles, jaw pain or poor posture, they may benefit from seeing a physiotherapist. A physiotherapist can assess your child and see where exercises and movement can be used to relive pain.

Stress and relaxation strategies for pain management

Living with persistent headaches can be very stressful for your child and the whole family. Pain from headaches can be made worse by stress and anxiety.

Using relaxation strategies everyday can help reduce pain.

Strategies can include: 

  • guided imagery
  • meditation
  • relaxing music
  • distraction
  • deep breathing. 

There are many websites and apps that give examples of relaxation strategies, such as 'Smiling Mind' or 'Calm'.

Getting enough sleep at night is another important part of managing headaches.  A good sleep routine includes: 

  • going to bed at the same time each night
  • waking at the same time each day
  • not having daytime naps
  • using the bed only for sleeping
  • not using screens an hour before bed.

It is important that your child continues to go to school, even when they have persistent headaches. School can be a good distraction and social support for your child.

Talk with your child's school and teachers to help with your child’s headache management. They can help to encourage your child to take rest breaks and help to find any areas where your child might be having stress and anxiety that makes the headache worse.

Some children might also benefit from seeing a psychologist. A psychologist can help children with ongoing pain by:

  • managing stress and anxiety
  • developing good sleep routines
  • developing coping strategies for pain.

Psychologists can also give advice to caregivers on supporting children with headaches and persistent pain.

Acupuncture and pain management

Some children can get relief from headaches with acupuncture. Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine therapy where very thin; metal needles are inserted in specific areas of the skin.

Acupuncture should always be done by a registered health care provider. Talk to your child’s doctor for recommendations and referral.

Last updated Friday 8th December 2023


This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024