Fact/Fiction: Do hiccups teach babies how to breathe?

Old news, truthfully retold. This week we try and find out whether it's true that babies benefit from hiccuping

How It Was Told

It’s hard being a parent of a newborn baby. Every different noise, every different cry, every different reaction has the potential to send you spiralling into the latest fit of paranoia while you become acquainted with your new arrival.

So headlines in mid-November may have made for some comforting reading for parents-to-be who are about to embark on the challenge for the first time.

A report into whether hiccups taught babies how to breathe was widely picked up on in the press, both in the UK and overseas. However, there was a huge difference in how the story was reported, with different news outlets varying on the certainty with which they reported the University College London study.

Some were quite measured. Take, for instance, The Times, which opted for: “Why the hiccups help a baby learn to breathe more easily”.

You can go further down the sliding scale from there – not far behind was the Mail Online with: “Why a hiccup is no accident: Scientists discover the mysterious reflex helps babies learn to control their breathing”. Sky News’ headline of: “Why do we hiccup? Scientists link reflex to brain development in babies” was also fairly certain.

CNN were less sure but chose to look beyond babies, settling on: “Scientists may have just worked out why we hiccup” and Yahoo! tempered their own offering with: “Newborn hiccups could be crucial to babies’ brain development”. Then there was The Daily Telegraph, which inexplicably used the headline: “Reason we hiccup: Scientists suggest reflex in adults is ‘inner baby talking’”. What part of the study that references is unclear.

But are the stories true?

Facts. Checked

Have scientists uncovered the true purpose of hiccups? Not on this evidence – some outlets were right to be cautious and much more research is required to prove that hiccups teach a baby how to breathe.

The study monitors electrical activity in the brain when a newborn hiccups. The researchers used EEG (electroencephalography) brain-scan recordings of 217 babies, but only six per cent had a bout of hiccups during the recording. That left the academics with a tiny sample size from which to analyse, which is the biggest weakness of this study and the reason why more research is required.However, the results did show the same response of feedback signals to the brain whether the baby was born at full term or prematurely at around 29 weeks of pregnancy.

But while this bolsters scientists’ understanding of how diaphragm contraction is one of the earliest movement activities that a baby develops, it is a step further to say that hiccups teach breathing.

That remains a theory and the study’s lead author, UCL research associate Kimberley Whitehead, reflected this in her words on the study. She said: “The reasons why we hiccup are not entirely clear, but there may be a developmental reason, given that foetuses and newborn babies hiccup so frequently.”

There is no conclusive link to show that hiccups are necessary for a baby to learn to breathe at this stage and more study with a bigger sample size is needed to determine whether hiccups have a true impact on
brain development.

As for The Daily Telegraph’s “inner baby talking” headline, it is still unclear at this point what that is a reference to.

But the study remains an interesting starting point, with lessons that could go beyond infants to have ramifications for adults too. As Whitehead notes: “Our findings have prompted us to wonder whether hiccups in adults, which appear to be mainly a nuisance, may in fact by a vestigial reflex, left over from infancy when it had an important function.”

But should this study have any impact on how you react if your newborn bundle of joy hiccups? No.

Image: Miles Cole