Why Do Babies Get Hiccups in the Womb?

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I remember frequently feeling a sudden jerk inside my womb. It would return rhythmically for several minutes, and I'd scratch my head wondering what was going on. Were these contractions? In-utero seizures? Finally, it dawned on me-- my unborn baby had the hiccups.

If your in-the-womb baby has the hiccups, you may wonder why. It's actually quite normal for mom-to-be to become concerned when their fetuses hiccup frequently; they may fear that it is a sign of a neurological or respiratory problem. However, like most pregnancy-related panics, this one is nothing to worry about.

No one's completely sure why babies hiccup in the womb; in fact, there's no clear reason that people hiccup at all. But ultrasounds can at least give us a vague idea about why it happens in the womb.

Fetuses drink amniotic fluid and sometimes "breathe" small amounts of it. When amniotic fluid enters the baby's lungs, the diaphragm contracts to expel it. This causes hiccups. Of course, because the baby receives all his oxygen through the placenta-- so this "practice breathing" is not essential for his survival. He can not drown or choke when he inhales amniotic fluid.

Do you need to be worried if your baby gets in-utero hiccups frequently? On the contrary! Almost all moms-to-be feel their babies hiccup at least once during the third trimester. Hiccuping is a sign that your baby's central nervous system is well-developed and that he is readying himself for life outside the womb.

Despite my own daughter's frequent hiccuping, she was born full-term with an APGAR score of nine, and she is now a very happy, healthy toddler. There is no need to worry if your unborn baby gets hiccups frequently, although why unborn babies get hiccups remains something of a mystery.

Published by Juniper Russo

Juniper Russo is a freelance writer living in the Southern US. She writes for several online and print-based publications and passionately advocates an evidence-based approach to holistic health and activism...  View profile

1 Comment

Sign in to Comment
  • Reinhard 10/30/2013

    It has been proposed* that fetal hiccupping ‘is a useful reflex to allow vigorous exercise of the respiratory inspiratory muscle without the inhalation of liquor. Immobilization of fetal muscle leads to disruption of development or atrophy, so that movement is required for normal development.’ Fuller concludes: ‘hiccup should be reclassified as an essential intrauterine reflex that may recur, like other primitive reflexes, in adult life.’
    *Fuller, G. N. (1990). "Hiccups and human purpose". Nature 343 (6257): 420. doi:10.1038/343420b0. PMID 2300190