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Why Does My Baby Hiccup In The Womb?

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Is Baby Hiccuping Normal?

Usually noticeable in your second or third trimester, fetal hiccups are a normal reflex preparing the fetus's lungs for a healthy respiratory function after birth. In addition, it could also be a sign of the development of suckling and gasping patterns. However, seek medical care if bouts of hiccups occur daily after 28 weeks of pregnancy, greater than 4 times per day.

If you are entering your second trimester, you’ve probably already experienced sundry signs, symptoms, and discomforts of pregnancy. Nausea, sore and tender breasts, low back pain, cramps, frequent urination and mood swings are a few things you must have already gone through. Thankfully, the second trimester eases a lot of these symptoms (or you simply get used to it) and also marks the return of your energy levels to near normal. Another exciting thing about the second trimester is getting to feel your baby move for the very first time.

When The Baby Begins To Move

The first set of fetal movements is referred to as “quickening” by medical professionals. While some mothers-to-be experience this as early as 13-16 weeks of pregnancy, others may feel it around 18-20 weeks. First-time-moms may not be able to feel it or detect it very early. But don’t fret if your little one is a late bloomer as the broad range of the first detection of movement is typically from 13-25 weeks.1

Sixteen distinct movement patterns have been noticed in fetuses that are a lot like those observed in newborn infants. These include just discernible movements, startles, general movements, breathing, isolated arm or leg movements, hiccuping, etc.2

Baby hiccups inside the womb were first described in the late 19th century and were considered a sure shot sign of a healthy baby.3

Why Do Babies Hiccup In The Womb?

Fetal hiccups can show up as early as 9 weeks post-conception, though you may not be able to feel them at such an early stage due to the tiny size of your baby. Hiccups in the womb are actually the predominant diaphragmatic movement before 26 weeks of gestation. They are generally regarded as a programmed static strength training exercise of sorts for fetuses; this is how they prepare for respiratory function after birth. They can also be a sign of a reflex circuitry underlying the development of suckling and gasping patterns.4

When 1456 women at gestational weeks 20-38 were observed for fetal hiccups, it was concluded that the normal fetus has a substantial increase in mean heart rate with fetal hiccups beginning after 28 weeks of gestation. This is linked with the transitional period of maturation observed between gestation of 28 and 32 weeks and could be another neurodevelopment milestone for the baby.5

So What Do Baby Hiccups Feel Like In The Womb?

To mothers, they may feel like gas bubbles, flutters or tiny little rhythmic spasms in their belly. Typically, baby hiccups in womb occur in bouts (which is when you may feel them) with a steady periodic structure, but infrequently they may also occur as single events, lasting less than a second each. In a study involving 167 normal fetuses between 26 and 41 weeks, it was observed that babies hiccup most frequently from 30–33 weeks of gestation and this decreases later. In the third trimester of pregnancy, bouts of hiccups may be accompanied by fetal breathing movements.6

However, the scientific community is divided on the maximum rate of occurrence of baby hiccups in the womb. Some studies claim that the maximum hiccup activity is noted in fetuses between 26 and 32 weeks of pregnancy.7

When Should You Be Concerned?

Fetal hiccups were identified in about one-seventh of the fetal activity records of the Fels Research Institute in Ohio. They occur most frequently during the last trimester of the prenatal period, with the highest occurrence in the third and the fourth weeks leading up to birth.8

While it is a completely normal phenomenon during pregnancy, baby hiccups can also be a cause of concern in some cases.

Hyperactivity

Hyperactivity is a fetal response associated with umbilical cord compression. In animal models, intermittent umbilical cord compression has shown to trigger fetal hiccups. Bouts of hiccups occurring daily after 28 weeks of pregnancy, and greater than 4 times per day require fetal evaluation. Approach your doctor who might look for signs of umbilical cord accidents.

Fetal Jerking Movements

Fetal jerking movements and fetal hiccups may also be related to blood flow disturbances in the baby, especially cord compression9 which happens when the umbilical cord wraps around the neck of the baby, cutting off the oxygen supply to your little one. When this happens, the fetal heart rate will probably increase and blood flow from the umbilical cord to the baby will slow down considerably.

Anoxemia

If your baby hiccups a lot during pregnancy, anoxemia, or reduction in the oxygen content of the blood can also be a possible cause.10

While baby hiccups in the womb is a completely natural phenomenon, if you notice any abnormality in the hiccuping pattern, do not hesitate to contact your doctor.

References   [ + ]

1. First Fetal Movement: Quickening. American Pregnancy Association
2. De Vries, Johanna IP, Gerard HA Visser, and Heinz FR Prechtl. “The emergence of fetal behaviour. I. Qualitative aspects.” Early human development 7, no. 4 (1982): 301-322.
3. Witter, Frank, Janet Dipietro, Kathleen Costigan, and Priscilla Nelson. “The relationship between hiccups and heart rate in the fetus.” The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine 20, no. 4 (2007): 289-292.
4, 6. Popescu, E. A., M. Popescu, T. L. Bennett, J. D. Lewine, W. B. Drake, and K. M. Gustafson. “Magnetographic assessment of fetal hiccups and their effect on fetal heart rhythm.” Physiological measurement 28, no. 6 (2007): 665.
5. Witter, Frank, Janet Dipietro, Kathleen Costigan, and Priscilla Nelson. “The relationship between hiccups and heart rate in the fetus.” The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine 20, no. 4 (2007): 289-292.
7. Pillai, Mary, and David James. “Hiccups and breathing in human fetuses.” Archives of Disease in Childhood 65, no. 10 Spec No (1990): 1072-1075.
8. Norman, H. Newbery. “Fetal hiccups.” Journal of Comparative Psychology 34, no. 1 (1942): 65.
9. Collins, Jason H. “Umbilical cord accidents.” BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 12, no. 1 (2012): A7.
10. Norman, H. Newbery. “Fetal hiccups.” Journal of Comparative Psychology 34, no. 1 (1942): 65.