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Hiccups are involuntary spasms of your baby's diaphragm that cause air to get sucked into his throat, prompting a quick closing of the vocal cords and the sound "hic." Although hiccups sometimes worry parents, they're almost always harmless. In fact, hiccups may actually be an important and necessary part of your baby's development, researchers at University College London discovered.
The research team measured the brain activity of 13 newborn babies having a bout of hiccups. Some babies were born full-term and others pre-term. Babies born prematurely are particularly prone to hiccuping, and do so for around 15 minutes a day. Including premature babies in the study provided insight into why babies hiccup a lot during the third trimester, even when they're still in the womb.
Using electrodes placed on the babies' scalps and sensors on their chests to monitor the diaphragm contractions, the researchers noticed that whenever the infants hiccuped, a large wave of brain signals was triggered.
Writing in the journal Clinical Neurophysiology, the scientists concluded that these brain waves may help babies link the "hic" sound from the hiccup to the contraction of their diaphragms. This could be a way for a baby's developing brain to connect with the diaphragm's activity so the body can properly regulate breathing, the authors explained.
"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," senior author Dr. Lorenzo Fabrizi said.
"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 voluntarily controlled by moving the diaphragm up and down," he said.
So why do adults hiccup? The researchers think hiccuping in grown-ups might simply be a leftover reflex from when we were babies.
This was a small study, and the conclusion is still a hypothesis. We'll need more research on hiccups before we know for sure whether these London researchers got it right.
For now, at least, their conclusions offer some extra peace of mind for the next time your little one has a hiccupping episode, whether inside or outside the womb. Those annoying "hics" may actually be doing your baby good!
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