Becoming a New Parent with Migraine: What to Know and How to Cope
Congratulations! You’re expecting, adopting, or your child was just born! The old cliché is true: it’s an exciting time, but also a challenging one. I’m a new mom of a three month old and I also have migraine. (For those parents wondering how I even found time to write this—let’s just say you can get a lot done with voice dictation and a smartphone with a baby in your lap!)
A few years back, a well-meaning family member wondered if getting pregnant would stop my migraine attacks. I immediately thought of the 24/7 care of a newborn, not to mention the fact that babies cry quite frequently, and cringed. But eventually my husband and I were ready to have a child, and our daughter was born this year. I want to share what I’ve learned for expecting or current parents.
Hormones and migraine
Obviously, this section only applies to those giving birth, so if it doesn’t apply to you, feel free to skip it!
When my family member mentioned pregnancy as a way to change my migraine frequency, there was a grain of truth. Pregnancy can affect migraine frequency. As I mentioned in this video, my first trimester showed an increase in migraine attacks, with almost no attacks in subsequent trimesters. However, it’s difficult to know if you are going to be one of those women who improve during pregnancy.
Then there is the "4th trimester" - the first few months after giving birth when you are starting to care for the new member of your family. Once you are no longer pregnant, there is a drop in hormone levels and an increase in responsibility. More than half of women with migraine get an attack in the first month postpartum.2This article explains the hormonal changes going on in a woman’s body, including a drop in estrogen after the baby’s birth. Some women experience their first migraine ever—if this is the case for you check with your doctor and make sure you have the correct diagnosis.
You can’t control your hormones, so the best thing to do is to be prepared. You likely talked to your doctor about what medications you can take when pregnant. You can also come up with a game-plan for after your baby’s birth. If you’re planning on breastfeeding, you will need to check with your child’s pediatrician about any medications you want to take. The good news is there are a lot more options for migraine treatment while breastfeeding than in pregnancy. According to the American Migraine Foundation, “Several triptans, a migraine-specific medicine, are not contraindicated for breastfeeding, and Tylenol, ibuprofen and other NSAIDs are safe as well.”1You can do your own research on different medications and breastfeeding here.
Sleep: will it ever happen again?
Broken sleep, not enough sleep, an irregular sleep schedule, napping… these are all potential migraine triggers. And though every baby is different, I can’t think of one parent who didn’t deal with all of the above at some point. I got my first migraine attack postpartum when my baby was up every hour one night. I remember googling if this was a form of torture while my head was starting to pound.
For me, the short-term solution has been to get as much help as possible. I’m breastfeeding our daughter, but once she started to take a bottle (it took a few stressful weeks to find one that she’d actually take) my husband could do a nighttime feeding to give me a little more rest, and my mom could come over in the afternoon on occasion when I needed an extra nap and feed and play with my daughter.
Though I can’t control when I sleep or for how long, I have focused on trying to at least get as much as I can. Some people I’ve talked to, especially those with twins, have hired a night nurse to help them get a little more shut-eye.
The other bit of advice you may hear is “sleep when the baby sleeps.” This can be effective advice depending on you and the baby. My daughter is pretty alert and wakeful, and often her naps are too short for me to actually fall asleep. Or, if I take her anywhere in the stroller, that is when she chooses to nap and she’ll want to nurse or play when we get back home. I remember one day trying four or five times to lay down when she was taking a nap, and she kept waking up after a few minutes. As she's gotten older, I’ve gotten better at sleeping when she does, and now I don’t stress about it too much—if I am able to fall asleep when she does, great. If I don't hit it right, I ask for extra help when I need it.
Other environmental factors
Other factors to consider before having a baby are skipping meals, dehydration, and posture.
Skipping Meals and Dehydration
Skipping meals and not drinking enough water are migraine triggers for a lot of us, but babies needs trump all, and sometimes that means she is crying to be fed before you have a chance to feed yourself.
A single feeding can take up to an hour, and newborns often do something called cluster feeding—where they feed constantly for a few hours. Also, if you are breastfeeding, you will find yourself more thirsty and hungry than usual.
A solution to this, especially in the early weeks, is to keep some water bottles and energy bars or other snacks by where you feed the baby. Since I was up much of the night at first, I kept trail mix by my bed. Take advantage of the time the baby needs you less and refill water or grab food. Do this before you fold laundry or wash the dishes.
Having a family member help prepare easy-to-grab meals and snacks can also be a lifesaver. One can’t live on energy bars alone. For example, my husband has made sandwiches and cut up fruit and veggies for me before leaving for work so I could grab something healthier.
Whether you are breastfeeding, bottle feeding, or pumping, etc., there are only so many ways you can sit. I’ve had a constant crick in my back since my daughter was born. I haven’t been so sedentary in my entire life! To combat this, I take a walk on most days (this is weather dependent of course, and if your baby is born in the dead of winter or the heat of summer, this may be more difficult), stretch next to the baby while we both play on the floor, and I finally got back to my chiropractor when my daughter was two months old. There also mommy and baby yoga classes at some studios so you don’t have to worry about someone watching your baby while you go to a class. I just attended my first class, but my baby wanted to nurse the entire time, so I will try again and hope for better timing in the future.
No matter what you do for movement, check in on your posture when you are feeding or holding your baby. Are you constantly leaning forward or scrunching your shoulders? Can you use an extra pillow for support? Remember that you are in this position for up to 12 hours every day, so try to make it as comfortable as possible.
One more factor to consider is stress. Maybe I shouldn’t put this last, as it might be the first thing that comes to many people's minds. Though caring for a newborn is often joyful (baby smiles are the best!), it can also be stressful. Awhile back, I wrote an article on stress as a trigger. If you read the comments, it seems that for some people it’s a strong trigger and for others it’s an indirect trigger.
If stress was a large factor for you before having a baby, try to keep using whatever tactics you did beforehand such as meditation, quiet time, or exercise. Know too, that you will get into the groove of parenthood more and more as time goes on and the “new normal” will hopefully no longer be a stress on your or your migraine brain.
I hope all this info was helpful. I’d love to hear from you—did you have any migraine triggers in the postpartum period? Did you find anything helped your attacks? Were you able to take any medications? Comment below!
How much has your migraine disease changed or evolved over time?