New parents cannot help but worry when their baby gets the hiccups, especially because even scientists still aren’t sure why it happens. But here’s something that might ease your thoughts: new research says this involuntary process may be an important part of your newborn’s brain development.
A study conducted by researchers from the University College of London and published in the journal Clinical Neurophysiology suggest that hiccups — the strong contractions or spasms of the diaphragm caused by irritation or stimulation of the muscle — can trigger electrical activity in the brain which help babies learn how to regulate their breathing.
Researchers looked at 217 infants born at a range of 30 weeks to 42 weeks and recorded the infants’ brain activity with electrodes that were placed on their scalps. They also placed movement sensors on the babies’ stomachs to determine when the hiccups were happening.
According to the study, all hiccups happened during wakefulness or active sleep. Each hiccup triggered three separate brain waves in all of the newborns, the last of which they believe helped the baby link the sound of a hiccup to a contraction of the diaphragm.
“The reasons why we hiccup are not entirely clear, but there may be a developmental reason, give that fetuses and newborn babies hiccup so frequently,” said Kimberley Whitehead, the study’s lead author and a research associate at the University College of London’s Neuroscience, Physiology, and Pharmacology department in a news release.
The study also found that hiccups actually start in the womb, as early as nine weeks. Premature babies are also particularly prone to hiccups — they spend approximately 15 minutes a day hiccupping.
According to Dr. Lorenzo Fabrizi, a senior research fellow at the University College of London and the study’s senior author, “The activity resulting from a hiccup may be helping the baby’s brain to learn how to monitor the breathing muscles so that eventually breathing can be voluntary controlled by moving the diaphragm up and down.”
He adds, “When we are born, the circuits which process body sensations are not fully developed, so the establishment of such networks is a crucial developmental milestone for newborns.”
The study still has not found a cause for hiccups in adults, but it has led the research team to wonder if it’s a “vestigial reflex,” or “left over from infancy when it had an important function,” said Whitehead.