Let’s face it: Hiccups can be a pain—even baby-size ones. And it’s not like you can just tell your baby to hold their breath or down a spoonful of peanut butter (two common hiccup “cures” frequently adopted by adults). Happily, there are a few things you can do to relieve the discomfort baby hiccups can cause—and maybe even prevent them from happening in the first place.
It all starts in utero, says Janice Heard, a community paediatrician in Calgary and member of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s Public Education Advisory Committee. “Many moms can feel their infants hiccupping during pregnancy,” she says. Hiccups are actually very mysterious she adds, and no one really knows why they occur. (One theory from researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., is that they act as a burping mechanism to help babies take in more milk.)
Whatever the cause, we do know that hiccups are a symptom of an irritated diaphragm, which can happen when infants get upset (a prolonged bout of crying often leads to uncontrollable hiccupping) or when they eat or drink too fast. “Their bellies expand too quickly, which irritates the diaphragm,” says Heard. When this happens, the diaphragm starts to spasm and the vocal cords snap shut, causing the classic “hic” sound.
Annoying, yes. But dangerous? No. Hiccups usually only last for a few minutes, then go away on their own. And, they’re almost always completely benign, says Heard.
“If you feel your baby’s hiccups have gone on for too prolonged a period of time (up to an hour, for instance), or seem to occur more frequently than seems normal, you can always ask your doctor about it,” she says. If your baby hiccups, spits up and coughs frequently during feeding, it could be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is essentially baby heartburn. Most babies outgrow GER as the lower esophageal sphincter gets stronger so it can stay closed and doesn’t let the acid up into the food pipe. But some babies may require medical attention in severe cases.
To prevent hiccups, Heard recommends burping your baby more frequently during feedings and, if you’re bottle feeding, to slow things down by taking little breaks (which is trickier to do if you’re breastfeeding).
If it’s too late and the hiccups have already hit—and are clearly bugging your baby—Heard recommends good old distraction as the best solution. “Make them laugh,” she says. “Do something silly so they forget what’s going on with their hiccups.” It’s the equivalent of trying to drink out of the wrong side of a glass for grown-ups—as soon we stop worrying about hiccups, they tend to stop as suddenly as they started.