Kids health

Hiccups: causes and cures

What causes this irritating phenomenon — and is there a cure?

TP09_LittleBodies1 Photo: Chuck Schmidt/Getty Images

There are few things more normal — yet peculiar — than a bout of hiccups. This is especially true for children and babies, who are more prone to this annoying occurrence than adults. No doubt you felt your little one hiccupping away in utero and wondered what caused it.

Hiccups happen when your respiratory muscles involuntarily contract. Your diaphragm flexes and draws in air, and the glottis (the muscle that protects the entrance to the lungs and surrounds the vocal chords) snaps shut, causing the telltale “hic” sound.

The mystery of why

“A hiccup has no clear value,” says Mark Feldman, the director of Community Paediatrics at the University of Toronto. He compares the spasm to another involuntary respiratory reaction that does have a practical purpose: “A cough clears your air passage and can be a life-saving reflex.” Not true of the hiccup, so scientists have long attempted to search out the raison d’être.

A 2003 French study concluded that hiccups may be vestigial behaviour from when we had gills, because the physiological act of hiccupping mirrors the way some amphibious creatures gulp in water to get oxygen. It’s thought that the function was preserved as we evolved because the sharp intake of breath helps in the suckling action of nursing.


Whatever the reason, your child’s hiccups are likely nothing to worry about. “Pretty much all kids get hiccups at one time or another, and in almost all cases they’re completely benign,” says Feldman. Very rarely, a person will get hiccups for longer than 48 hours, known as persistent hiccups. Rarer still are intractable hiccups, which last for two months or longer. These types of hiccups usually occur in adults, and can be brought on by a neurological event, like a stroke. In the unlikely event that your child hiccups for more than two straight days, a doctor’s visit is recommended.

A cure for hiccups?

While they may cause discomfort, hiccups will simply go away as mysteriously as they arrived. Of course, there are dozens of home remedies, including holding your breath, having someone scare you, or eating a teaspoon of sugar or peanut butter. But there’s no scientific evidence that these acts do anything at all. “At best, they provide a distraction that takes up time, during which the hiccups go away on their own,” says Feldman.

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