Migraines are not only an (often major) annoyance that adults experience. Many younger people experience them as well. In fact, studies estimate that 10% of school-aged children suffer from migraines, while up to 28% of adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19 regularly experience the condition. Furthermore, 8% of boys and 23% of girls will have suffered a migraine by the time they turn 17.
Many children and teenagers suffer from sleep disorders as well. A large study done in 2002 found that among children aged 11 to 15, 12% reported “at least one sleep problem every night,” while a further 76% reported “occasional sleep problems.” A study performed in 2019 had similar results, which caused researchers to think that sleep disorders and migraines in children may be linked.
At St. Christopher Hospital for Children, Drexel University, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 90 children with both migraine and sleep issues were given a polysomnogram, a type of sleep test that monitors various bodily functions such as eye movement, heart rhythm, and muscle and brain activity, as well as breathing. Out of the 90 participants, 60 reported having migraines, 11 reported having “chronic daily headaches,” six reported having tension headaches, and 13 had “non-specific headaches.” An updated study in 2020 by some of the same researchers had similar results.
The researchers found that children who experienced migraines were twice as likely than the other participants to have obstructive sleep apnea. In addition, 56% of children with migraines were found to have a sleep-related breathing disorder (SRBD) compared to only 30% of children who had non-migraine headaches. The researchers also associated severe migraines with “shorter total sleep time, longer total time to fall asleep, and shorter REM sleep.”
“Sleeping problems can exacerbate the problems a migraine causes on a child’s health and may hinder a child’s performance at school,” said Sanjeev Kothare, MD, senior author of the study. “Parents and doctors need to be aware of the strong likelihood of sleep disorders in children with a migraine and seek appropriate preventions and treatments.”
Reasons for the link
Scientists think that lack of sleep in youth and adolescence may be a trigger for migraines. Many children and teenagers stay up late and wake up early for school, and this period of little sleep is likely to cause migraines. Even children that go to bed at a reasonable hour are often forced to get up early in the morning to catch the school bus or walk to school. Some studies show that allowing children to sleep longer hours in the morning reduces their migraine frequency, but most schools do not take this research into consideration.
The importance of sleep in childhood
In any case, getting enough sleep is crucial for youngsters. If your child has been suffering from migraines or headaches, you might want to check if they’re staying up later than you thought. At bedtime, limit their use of electronic devices, and make sure they don’t have any caffeine. Once your child is on a healthy sleep schedule, you’ll notice the difference instantly, and chances are their headache problems will no longer be something to worry about.
- Migraine Research Foundation: Migraine in Kids and Teens
- Self-reported organic and nonorganic sleep problems in schoolchildren aged 11 to 15 years in Vienna
- AASM: Link between Migraines and Sleep Disorders in Children
- Clinical presentation, diagnosis and polysomnographic findings in children with migraine referred to sleep clinics
- Migraine and Sleep in Children: A Bidirectional Relationship
Steve Schadendorf, MD
Founding Medical Partner
Dr. Schadendorf is a board certified neurologist who specializes in vascular neurology at Bass Medical Group. Dr. Schadendorf is a Founding Medical Partner and Medical Director of the Neuromedicine Channel at Doctorpedia.