Why Babies Get Hiccups And How To Stop Them

Babies probably get hiccups more frequently as a way of burping themselves, researchers suspect.

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A hiccupping baby covering its mouth with its hand.
Jozef Polc / 500px / Getty

Hiccups are infuriating. Their force flings babies about in their bassinets and irritates adults who wolf down their dinners. But even more frustrating is how little we know about how to cure hiccups. At this point, the scientific hiccup advice reads like fiction — scare yourself, eat a spoonful of sugar, and hope for the best.

But we do know what causes them. “Hiccups in both adults and babies are stimulated by the phrenic nerve, which is attached to the muscle of the diaphragm,” says pediatrician Lisa Lewis, M.D. “The diaphragm muscle helps us breathe, and any interruption of function this muscle may cause hiccups.”

The question is why our bodies need to hiccup in the first place. Some suspect it’s an evolutionary remnant we acquired from, of all things, tadpoles and their odd system of gill ventilation, but that seems unlikely. Other experts suggest that hiccups are more like burps, and essentially a response to excess air in the stomach. This is an appealing idea because it may explain why newborns get hiccups more often than adults — they eat faster than their underdeveloped gastrointestinal tracts can keep up with.

“The gastrointestinal tract of a human operates through reflexes which aren’t necessarily mature at birth,” says Christopher Hollingsworth, M.D., a surgeon at NYC Surgical Associates. “Their immature gastrointestinal tracts need several months after birth to coordinate these reflexes.”

When it comes to curing hiccups, the literature is supremely unhelpful. One review concluded that “there is insufficient evidence to recommend a particular treatment for hiccups.”

Still, studies suggest scaring people out of their hiccups is somewhat effective; researchers think that’s because fear activates the fight or flight response, which overrides the rest and digest action of the parasympathetic nervous system. At least one case study reports that a man ended a four-day case of the hiccups by having an orgasm. There’s also some evidence that sugar may help to stop the diaphragm from spasming by stimulating the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the stomach. Increasing carbon-dioxide could also reduce hiccups, research suggests, which is why people hold their breath or breathe into paper bags to alleviate symptoms. As a last resort for severe cases, the antipsychotic drug thorazine has been shown to stop hiccups in their tracks.

For infants, prevention is key. In order to make sure babies don’t swallow extra air during feedings, make sure they’re firmly suctioned onto the nipple, Lewis advises, and burp them every 10 minutes during breastfeeding. Feeding infants at a 45-degree angle can also make a big difference by facilitating digestion.

If infants appear startled or upset by hiccups, try soothing them with skin-to-skin contact, gentle rocking, or a pacifier. Once babies relax, their diaphragms might calm down as well.

If hiccups persist or appear particularly distressing or painful to infants, parents should consult with their pediatricians.

“Hiccups are hard to get rid of once they have started, but usually resolve on their own after a few minutes,” Hollingsworth says. “If they last more than 30 minutes, it might be a good idea to call your pediatrician.”

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