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How to help kids deal with headaches caused by stress at school

New teachers, new friends, new extracurricular activities — a new school year can bring with it lots of excitement. Unfortunately, it can also bring about lots of stress, as grades, homework, tests and pop quizzes start to take over your child’s life.

Every new school year, I hear from many parents that their kids are complaining about frequent headaches. I’ve found that a few simple lifestyle adjustments can reduce stress and help put an end to headaches.

The first few weeks of school

One of the primary causes of headaches is anxiety and stress — unfortunately, those are common feelings for children as a new school year approaches. If you notice your child feeling uneasy or nervous about starting school, talk to him or her about it. Remind your child that those feelings are perfectly normal and common and point out the positive aspects of school — it’s fun, they can meet new friends, learn new things, etc.

Your child’s backpack

Kids today are being loaded up with text books and it can put significant stress on their shoulders and neck. When picking out a backpack for your child, make sure it has wide, padded shoulder straps and a padded back. Help them organize it well so all the compartments are utilized and the weight is evenly distributed and make sure they’re using both shoulder straps when carrying it. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder can strain muscles and lead to a tension headache.

Sleep schedules

A good rule of thumb for everyone — kids, teens or adults — is to get eight hours of sleep a night. Now, as any parent knows, sleep is not always the most consistent. But lack of sleep or an inconsistent schedule can lead to increased headaches. It’s best to start your kids young with a good sleep routine that will lead to good habits later on. For older kids and teens, I recommend no TV, phones or tablets an hour before bedtime — in fact, I like to emphasize no screens in the bedroom, period. All that visual stimulation has been shown to disrupt sleep.

Eating healthy … and regularly

Mornings can be crazy with everyone — parents and kids — rushing to get ready and out the door on time. As a result, many kids skip breakfast. When they’re hungry later and have a headache, they’ll often reach for something sugary and processed or a caffeinated beverage, which will only make the headache worse. It’s a vicious cycle. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to eat nutritious breakfast in addition to lunch and dinner. If your child doesn’t have time to eat, encourage him or her to grab food that’s easy to eat on the go, like yogurt, granola bars, fruit or hard-boiled eggs. You can even prep some meals ahead of time, such as smoothies.

Hydration levels

Dehydration is a common headache trigger. Adequate intake of fluids — by fluids I mean water — throughout the day is crucial to preventing headaches. If your kids don’t like the taste of water, beverages like Propel and Vitamin Water are lightly flavored and perfectly fine. Just be sure to avoid beverages that are high in sugar or caffeine, such as sodas, sports drinks and juice.

Taking part in physical activity

Parent should encourage their children to take part in physical activities at school for a variety of reasons. Not only are they fun and an important part of learning and developing, physical activity can boost your child’s mood, increase self-confidence and regulate sleep schedules.

When to consult a medical professional

If your child’s headache persists, it is important that he or she undergoes an evaluation to diagnose the type and specific factors behind it. I’d suggest seeing your child’s primary care physician first. In most cases, he or she will be able to diagnose and treat your child’s headaches. However, if it’s deemed necessary, you can also be referred to Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Pain and Headache Center. There are a number of treatment options to assist your child in getting back to the quality of life he or she deserves.