Are Newborn Hiccups Harmful?

burping-newbornNewborn hiccups (or, in medicine, singultus) should be looked upon as a fact of life. Everyone gets the hiccups at one time or another, even fetuses and newborns. In fact, newborn hiccups are commonplace events, and there are some good reasons for that. If a baby doesn’t have an occasional bout of the hiccups, it would be a very strange baby indeed. That said, there are newborns and babies that never seem to get the hiccups, but they make up a definite minority.

The following five questions are probably the five that a parent is most likely to ask, coupled with the answers that parent is most likely to get from their doctor or pediatrician.

Are Newborn Hiccups A Cause For Alarm?

There are many things about newborns that can appear to be a little frightening. The fact is, most of these frightening experiences or events seem to happen with the first-born children. The reason, of course, is that parents don’t always know what to expect when their first child arrives. What actually is completely normal behavior can sometimes appear to be abnormal. By the time the second child has arrived, the parents are usually able to distinguish between the normal and the abnormal, and discover that a case of singultus in an infant is quite normal.

Newborns and babies are expected to burp, and to occasionally throw up their food. Neither burping nor throwing up is a cause for alarm, unless it becomes apparent that the baby is unable to keep food in its stomach. Neither are singultus.

It’s just that hiccups are often thought of as being an adult thing. Few adults remember having had the hiccups when they were an infant. Adults often hiccup after having eaten a heavy meal, or after drinking a carbonated beverage or an alcoholic one. Smoking can also make a person hiccup. Drinking a glass of water too rapidly can cause singultus as well. An infant does none of these things…or does it?

baby-eatingA baby’s stomach is small. A newborn’s stomach could even be called tiny. It doesn’t hold much food, so just a little nourishment can be the equivalent to a large meal to a newborn and cause the hiccups. So can drinking from the breast or especially from a bottle if the infant happens to swallow some air. Having too much air in their stomachs is one reason you burp an infant, and it is also one of the main reasons why they are apt to get a case of hiccups from time to time.

Newborn hiccups, therefore, never need to be a cause for alarm. They are completely natural. The infants themselves do not appear to necessarily be bothered by them. Older babies can sometimes become quite amused when having them. It’s also a known fact that a baby is capable of having hicccups while it is still in the womb, and it is not uncommon at all for an infant to actually get singultus before it is born.

The rate at which hiccups occur rarely needs to be a cause for concern either. A newborn may hiccup two or three times over the course of a minute, or hiccup at a rate of nearly once a second for a number of seconds. Such a high rate of hiccups is not all that common, but is not unnatural either.

What Causes Hiccups In Newborns?

thoracic-diaphragmFrom the perspective of the human anatomy, hiccups are caused by movement of the thoracic diaphragm. The thoracic diaphragm is a large dome-shaped muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen. This muscle is located in the chest or thorax, hence the name. The thoracic diaphragm plays a key role in the breathing process. Normally, its movements coincide with the expansion and contraction of the lungs.

If something causes this diaphragm to suddenly contract involuntarily however, especially during the time when air is being drawn into the lungs, the sudden change in air pressure can cause the space in the back of the throat where the vocal cords are located to suddenly close. This causes the sound to be produced that we refer to as a hiccup. A bodily movement that will sometimes accompany the sound is due to the movement of the thoracic diaphragm, which is a relatively powerful muscle. Hiccups do not cause any damage to the vocal cords, esophagus, or diaphragm.

The thing that most often causes this abrupt diaphragm movement in newborns is an accumulation of gas in the stomach. Also, if the contents of the stomach are forced back up into the esophagus, which is rather common in newborns and babies, the irritation can result in a sudden movement of the diaphragm and, in turn, a hiccup.

While hiccups have nothing to do with the breathing process itself, if an infant becomes excited it may experience hiccups due to the fact that when excited, it will tend to swallow air.

Why Are Newborns More Prone to Having Hiccups Than Adults?

mom-burping-babySince infants don’t usually drink carbonated beverages, nor do they drink alcoholic beverages or smoke, you might think they would tend to experience hiccups far less frequently than adults do. In fact, just the opposite is the case. Newborns and infants tend to have hiccups much more frequently than do adults. Two of the reasons for this have already been mentioned; their stomachs are so tiny that almost any meal is a big one; and while drinking, especially from a bottle, air is apt to accumulate in their stomachs.

A third reason has to do with the fact that a newborn is not yet a fully developed human being. There is still some work going on in completing the esophagus, the stomach, and a few other organs and tissues in the body. The lower esophageal sphincter, not to be confused with the diaphragm, is a muscle that acts as a one-way valve between the throat and esophagus and the stomach. This is one area that has quite often not yet been fully developed in a newborn. The muscle has not developed to the point where it can completely close. It will, therefore, allow the contents of the stomach to occasionally back up into the esophagus, which can cause hiccups. When a baby no longer has to be burped, it is usually one sign that the sphincter has become fully capable of performing its intended function.

What Does It Mean If Newborn Hiccups Don’t Go Away By Themselves?

Hiccups in newborns can last anywhere from a few seconds to up to an hour in some instances. The more lengthy of these sessions do not necessarily carry any particular meaning with them, and they are not any more harmful to the baby, although they can sometimes be a bit unsettling to the parents. If the lengthy bouts become frequent however, it could be a sign that something is amiss, and it would be advisable to see a doctor or pediatrician. Although somewhat rare, some infants are known to be affected with GERD, or acid reflux disease, possibly because the esophageal sphincter never developed completely or normally. This would normally show up only after a baby is somewhere between six months to a year old. Teething usually happens around this time as well.

Frequent episodes of hiccups can also be brought about by a stomach disorder, or anything that causes frequent episodes of colic. The hiccups themselves are not harmful, but their underlying cause sometimes could be.

Is There A Good Remedy For Curing Or Treating Hiccups in Newborns?

pediatrician-and-babyIt is usually a difficult or impossible task to try to treat or cure something that is completely normal in the first place.  The only way to ‘cure’ hiccups in a newborn would be to deprive it of food, or not allow air to find its way into the stomach. The first approach would of course be fatal, and the second approach would be almost impossible to accomplish. The fact that the esophageal sphincter is not yet fully developed is another reason there is no sure cure or remedy, since you can’t really ‘cure’ a body part that is not yet fully developed, nor would you want to try.

Parents are generally advised to ride things out, as the older an infant becomes, the less it is apt to have singultus. By the time most children are one or two, they will experience hiccups in about the same rate and number of occurrences as adults do. When it comes to newborns, the most effective way to treat a case of singultus is usually to burp the newborn. Burping will not always work, but the time a newborn needs to be burped is often the time when it is most apt to have singultus. Breastfeeding instead of putting a baby on the bottle early can be effective in preventing singultus, and at times changing a baby’s formula will make a difference. Since not all babies are alike, some will respond to certain methods while others will not.

These five common questions could almost be whittled down to a single question and a single, somewhat simplified answer. The question is: Are newborn hiccups harmful? The answer is no, or rarely.