Alberta mom Kristina Thompson Zuk is at Disneyland with her family for the first time. Her six-year-old daughter is wearing a blue Cinderella dress and both her kids are bubbling with excitement. They’ve only been at the park an hour when Kristina starts seeing double. Soon she’s seeing bright lights and jagged shapes too, and she’s feeling flushed, sweaty and anxious. An all-too-familiar migraine is on its way.
Somehow Kristina manages to walk back to her hotel alone—brain foggy, vision impaired—while her husband takes the kids around the park alone. She lies in the dark hotel room for six hours until the vice-like pain around her head builds up to an excruciating level, before it finally passes. When she rejoins her husband and kids, she sees their immense disappointment. She is gutted too: Once again she has been incapacitated in bed, instead of making memories with her family. At least this time her husband was there to take care of the kids—sometimes a migraine strikes when she’s alone with them, and she has to figure out a way to parent through the pain.
An estimated 8 percent of people 12 years or older are clinically diagnosed with migraines, according to Stats Canada. Migraines are a biochemical disorder, characterized as a very strong headache generally accompanied by nausea, vomiting, light and sound sensitivity, and they may be worsened by movement. Migraines usually last from a few hours to a few days and the pain can be severe to the point of disablement.
Dr. Christine Lay, a neurologist and headache specialist at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, explains that people experience migraines differently due to different genetic and biological conditions. Estrogen plays a major factor in migraine frequency and severity, which can be why women tend to experience more migraines than men.
Being a parent is hard enough. Parenting with a migraine is harder, and you can’t always predict where and when one of these extreme headaches will strike. But there are ways to manage them, so they are less of an impediment to daily life.
Have a back-up plan Being prepared in advance can help reduce stress and panic when a migraine strikes. If possible, have a few trusted adults to call for hands-on help, if your kids are little and need closer supervision. Lay also suggests having 2-3 meals in the freezer that can just be heated up, when cooking is out of the question. Have a list of activities the kids can do on their own or with a caregiver taped to the fridge, and include details of where everything is around the house.
Looking after littles If there’s nobody available to help out with younger kids—or an older child who still requires supervision—try quiet activities that don’t require high engagement. Dr. Lay suggests getting creative—pretend you’re stargazing in the dark room. Or put a movie on for the kids and have them use headphones while you rest. There are even mindfulness apps nowadays that are geared towards kids, so you can lie together and practice mindful breathing to help in the middle of a migraine.
Getting older kids on board Older kids can be a huge help and that’s why educating them about migraines is so important. Lay recommends using the right language by saying, “I have a very strong headache” instead of “bad headache,” so kids don’t associate migraines with a scary word.
Christine Hess, Ontario mother of two, says that her kids grew up knowing nothing different—migraines were a way of life. As they got older, she started explaining to them how migraines affect her and how they can help her get through one (play quieter, keep the lights off, be helpful with your sibling). Grade-school kids should be encouraged to be responsible in day-to-day life, and learn age-appropriate tasks around the house, so that they’re not pestering you every five minutes with questions and requests mid-migraine.
It’s OK by the time your kid is in the later grades of elementary school to set a “Do Not Disturb” rule for when you’re sleeping off a migraine. But do lay out clearly the types of emergency situations when they should and must knock on your door. And make sure they know not to answer the front door to unexpected callers or let people on the phone, other than known and trusted adults, know that you’re incapacitated.
“It’s okay if your kids eat a granola bar or a frozen yogurt tube for breakfast. It's okay to lie on the couch and slip in and out of sleep while your child is gleefully watching a movie or playing tea party with their stuffies until help can arrive. There isn’t one single thing as a parent you can’t push aside or get creative with to make it work, and you can’t feel guilty about it. Kids are resilient and strong and happy—they will surprise you.”
Migraine Toolkit Migraines can come on very suddenly. If you’re out and about, the best solution is usually to get home as fast as possible, but a migraine emergency toolkit comes in handy for when that’s just not possible. This can include your medication, sunglasses, calming essential oils, water. Knowing your triggers is important too. Substances like caffeine or even too much bright light can trigger a migraine. Try to avoid yours. Keep a taxi app on your phone, and don’t even attempt to drive if a migraine is coming on—the visual disturbance and foggy thinking make it too risky. Leave the car and take a cab or transit home, at the first symptoms.
Managing migraines Lay stresses that you should always take medication early. Often, people wait to see how bad the migraine is going to be, but taking medication at the migraine’s onset will be far more effective.
While getting a prescription for migraine-specific medication may be necessary, some migraine sufferers swear by essential oils and daily doses of magnesium to help mitigate the severity and frequency of their headaches. Yoga, meditation, stretching, heated pads and massage—particularly around the neck and shoulder areas—can all help relax the muscles and reduce the likelihood of getting as many migraines for some people.
It’s often a combination of medicine and natural remedies that is most effective—what works for one person may not work for another. What’s important is that you take care of yourself and find what works best for you.
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