Postpartum headaches are any headaches that hit you in the first six weeks after your little one is born.
And they’re pretty common—somewhere around 40% of new mamas get them.
Most of the time, you can chase them away with regular painkillers like paracetamol.
Unfortunately, though, there are some rare but serious conditions that can affect new mamas, which postpartum headaches can be a sign of.
Here’s what you need to know so that they can look after you after you leave the hospital.
In this article: 📝
- Postpartum headache causes
- What do postpartum headaches feel like?
- Can nursing give you headaches?
- How to relieve a postpartum headache
- When should I worry about postpartum headaches?
Postpartum headache causes
The increase in headaches after childbirth typically comes down to the huge chemical and social changes that the postpartum period naturally brings.
Add together hormonal changes, lack of sleep, stress, and lower food or fluid intake, and you have all the ingredients necessary for some serious head pain.
Typically headaches postpartum can take two forms: primary and secondary headaches.
And out of these, the two most common kinds are run-of-the-mill (but painful!) tension headaches and migraines.
These include migraines, cluster headaches, hypnic headaches, and tension headaches.
These types of headaches postpartum are not caused by any other condition, and as painful as they are—and they really are—they’re not typically considered dangerous.
Secondary headaches are more serious and can be caused by other health problems.
These include head injuries, high blood pressure (pre-eclampsia), infection, neck injury, and aneurysm.
What do postpartum headaches feel like?
Postpartum headache is often described as head, neck, or shoulder pain within the first six weeks of delivery.
As you probably already know, not all headaches are created equal. 🤕
Postpartum headaches are no exception, and new mamas experience them in different ways.
Let’s look at the two most common types of postpartum headache (and how to find relief):
Postpartum tension headaches
A tension headache is uncomfortable but shouldn’t last too long. It often feels like a sore band around your whole head.
After giving birth, the most common cause of tension headaches is your body telling you it needs something.
Caring for a new baby is tough. It might be that you’re dehydrated, your blood sugar is low, or you’ve strained your eyes looking at a screen to keep yourself awake during night feeds.
It’s always tough during this period to find the time to take care of yourself.
If you can, get some rest while your headache goes away, and assign someone to fill your water bottle and bring you snacks while you’re stuck under your sleeping newborn.
Migraines usually feel more like a throbbing headache on one side.
If you’ve got a postpartum headache behind your eye, this might also be a migraine.
They often come with a delightful feeling of nausea and vomiting, changes in your vision (often an ‘aura’ of zigzag lines in front of your eyes), and extreme sensitivity to light and noise.
Unfortunately, unlike mere tension headaches, migraines can stick around for several days.
Postpartum migraines are usually linked to the hormone crash your body goes through right after you give birth.
Basically, the sharp drop in both your estrogen and progesterone levels can directly cause water loss through sweating which, combined with a lack of sleep, can result in a migraine.
You’re more susceptible to them if you have a family history of migraines, but they can also find you for the first time in the weeks after you give birth.
Can nursing give you headaches?
Establishing nursing can definitely be a painful process, but it shouldn’t give you headaches directly.
It’s more likely that nursing headaches are linked to hormonal fluctuations.
Breastfeeding causes your oxytocin and prolactin to surge while your body’s natural levels of estrogen will dramatically drop.
Breastfeeding can also cause breast engorgement, which can lead to a painfully infected swelling known as Mastitis (with headaches being one of its flu-like symptoms).
The thing is, though, that nursing needs a lot of energy. It’s easy to get hungry or dehydrated when your baby wants to feed around the clock, and headaches can definitely be linked to those things.
How to relieve a postpartum headache
To get rid of a postpartum headache, you have a few different options.
You can also ask your doctor what they’d recommend, especially if you have a history of migraines and want advice on whether you can take your regular migraine medication.
Aside from that, your best bets are often simply to hydrate, eat regularly, get some fresh air, and rest when you can.
We know how tough that part is and how much you’ve got on your plate, but mamahood is easier to manage without a marching band banging away in your head.
So if you can, try and make sure to give yourself what you need.
When should I worry about postpartum headaches?
So, what are red flags for postpartum headaches? 🚩
If your headache becomes more severe—more severe than a migraine or a cluster headache—and lasts longer than 24 hours, it’s time to seek medical help.
Let’s go through the rare but serious headaches that need intervention one by one:
Post-dural puncture headaches
This is a fancy phrase for a postpartum headache that happens as a complication of spinal anesthesia such as an epidural.
It happens when a little spinal fluid leaks from the site where the anesthetic was injected and can last for about 72 hours.
According to the NHS in the UK, post-dural puncture headaches happen to about 1% of women who’ve had an epidural.
While it’s not a medical emergency, this kind of headache can be really painful and debilitating.
New mamas say that lying down, staying hydrated, and keeping the room dark helps to relieve the pain.
These headaches will usually resolve on their own, but your doctors might be able to speed up the process using what’s known as a blood patch.
Postpartum headaches are also associated with a rare but very serious condition called postpartum preeclampsia.
It’s treatable, but it is an emergency and can lead to seizures.
Thankfully, greater awareness and more monitoring before and after birth mean that this complication is now very unusual.
As for signs of postpartum preeclampsia, keep an eye out for:
- A pulsing headache on both sides that gets worse when you move
- Pain in your upper abdomen
- Difficulty breathing
- Changes in your vision
- Sudden weight gain or swelling, especially in your hands, feet, and face.
Doctors will check your blood pressure, as postpartum preeclampsia makes it skyrocket, and your urine for signs of protein.
Finally, you should also be extra cautious about postpartum headaches if you have any other symptoms of an infection.
Postpartum recovery is an incredibly vulnerable period for women, and infuriatingly postpartum care is one of the most neglected aspects of healthcare.
The best advocate for your health needs to be you—never accept pain as a given.
Complications in the postpartum period are very real so trust your instincts, mama.
Symptoms of infection to look out for include:
- Fever and chills – any fever over 100.4°F after you give birth should be checked by a doctor
- Redness or discharge around any stitches or tears
- Heavy or worsening bleeding
- Severe pain in your lower abdomen
- Neck stiffness
- Sensitivity to light
- Difficulty being woken up
Even though some of these symptoms overlap with ordinary headaches and migraines, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor if you’re concerned or if what you’re experiencing isn’t normal for you.
As a good rule of thumb, if your headache is bad enough that it makes it hard to take care of your baby, wakes you up, gets worse when you move, or if your heart is racing, it’s time to get checked out.
Talking about the worst-case scenario is always scary, but remember how common headaches are after giving birth and how often they resolve themselves on their own.
The chances are there’s no need to worry.
It is still pretty miserable, though, and if you’re looking for someone to commiserate with, the mamas in the Peanut community have been there too.