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17th February, 20215 min read

Postpartum headaches – what causes them and when should you worry?

Medical reviewer:Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author:Helen Prentice
Last reviewed: 17/02/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

In the weeks after giving birth to your baby, don't be surprised if you get headaches. It’s a common complaint – in fact, it’s thought that more than a third of new mothers get a headache in the first week ‘postpartum’ (after giving birth).

When you think about it, it’s not surprising. In the days and weeks after your baby arrives, you experience all sorts of things that can trigger a headache, from changes in your hormones to a lack of sleep.

The good news is that in many cases, postpartum headaches aren’t serious and can be managed at home. Read on to learn more, including when you should see a doctor.

What are postpartum headaches?

Postpartum headaches are headaches that happen after you’ve given birth – typically within the first 6 weeks of your baby's arrival.

These headaches are often ‘tension’ headaches, which are usually mild, or ‘migraines’, which can be very painful headaches.

It’s thought that 1 in 4 people will get postpartum migraines within 2 weeks of giving birth. Even if you’ve never had a migraine before, you may suddenly find yourself getting one.

Primary and secondary headaches

It’s important to know that, like all headaches, postpartum headaches can be divided into 2 categories.

The most common type of headache is a ‘primary’ headache. This means that it’s the headache that’s the problem, rather than any underlying condition. While it can be painful, it’s not dangerous. Tension headaches and migraines are primary headaches.

Less commonly, a headache can be caused by an underlying problem and could be a sign of something more serious. These sorts of headaches are called ‘secondary’ headaches as they’re caused by another condition, which may need urgent medical attention.

Let’s look at the common causes of headaches after giving birth, as well as the warning signs to look out for.

What causes postpartum headaches?

Having to take care of a newborn baby is a huge life change. At first, it can take up all of your time and energy. You might be missing meals, not drinking enough water, and getting up several times a night to feed your little one. It’s not surprising that lifestyle changes like this can trigger headaches.

Primary postpartum headaches are common, and they’re often tension headaches or migraines. They can be caused by changing hormones, particularly the drop in oestrogen after the birth.

If you’ve had migraines before or they run in your family, this can increase your chances of getting them after you give birth. They can also be more likely if you’re:

  • stressed
  • sleep deprived
  • dehydrated

More rarely, postpartum headaches can be secondary headaches, caused by another medical condition.

Sometimes they can be caused by something serious. These headaches can start suddenly and be extremely painful. You may also have other symptoms, such as high blood pressure, changes to your sight or feeling and being sick.

If you think you might have a serious secondary postpartum headache, you should get medical advice right away (see ‘when to see a doctor’ below), as it could could be a sign of:

Less serious causes of secondary postpartum headache include caffeine withdrawal.

How can you treat postpartum headaches?

You should be able to manage primary headaches yourself with a bit of self-care.

First, try to relax as much as possible and make sure you’re getting enough rest. This can certainly be a challenge with a newborn, but you could try to nap when they do, or ask someone to keep an eye on them for a while so you can catch up on sleep.

Also make sure you drink lots of water – try keeping a bottle close to hand – and eat as healthily as you can.

If you need to, you can usually take simple painkillers to ease postpartum headaches. It’s a good idea to check with your doctor or pharmacist first, particularly if you’re breastfeeding, but paracetamol is safe as long as you and your baby are otherwise healthy and you are not allergic to it.

Secondary headaches should always be assessed by a doctor and may need urgent treatment (see below).

When to see a doctor

While headaches after birth are usually nothing to worry about, if your postpartum headaches are severe or you have other symptoms, you should see your doctor immediately.

This is particularly important if:

  • you’ve hit your head
  • your arms or legs feel weak or numb
  • you have problems speaking
  • the headaches get worse over a short period of time
  • you have a stiff neck
  • you have a fever
  • you feel sick or are being sick
  • you have problems seeing or thinking clearly
  • the headaches happen after you exercise
  • the headaches change when you move position
  • the headaches wake you up at night
  • the headache is different from your usual migraine

Your doctor can examine you and may also suggest tests to find out what might be causing the headaches.

Even if your postpartum headaches aren’t caused by anything serious, it can be good to talk to someone. Remember, your doctor can also help if you're feeling overwhelmed, stressed or exhausted.

Key points

  • it’s common to get headaches after giving birth (postpartum headaches)
  • headaches can happen for different reasons, but sleepless nights, stress, dehydration and hormone levels may all play a part
  • most postpartum headaches can be managed with rest, fluids, healthy eating and simple painkillers
  • sometimes, a postpartum headache is a sign of a more serious condition, such as pre-eclampsia
  • if you have a severe headache and/or other symptoms such as a fever, sickness or visual problems, you should contact your doctor straight away
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