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Christin Perry

When Baby Has the Hiccups in the Womb

What do fetal hiccups feel like, and is baby hiccuping too much or too little? We’ve got the scoop on all those questions and more.

Pop…pop…pop! If you’re in your second or third trimester and your belly suddenly feels like a popcorn popper, chances are baby’s got a case of hiccups. By the time those first fluttery baby movements turn into actual jabs, punches and rolls, you’ll likely also begin to notice the telltale rhythmic movements of fetal hiccups as well.

So what are fetal hiccups? Quite simply, baby hiccups in the womb are the little movements baby’s diaphragm makes when she begins to practice breathing. As baby inhales, amniotic fluid enters her lungs, causing her developing diaphragm to contract. The result? A tiny case of the hiccups in utero.

What Does It Feel Like When Baby Has Hiccups?

Fetal hiccups are a quick, repetitive motion that you can tell is definitely coming from baby. At first you may think it’s a soft kick, but then it’ll happen again and again and, yes, again. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that the rhythm mirrors adult hiccups, which are also caused by diaphragm movements—but, of course, in the grown-up version, instead of amniotic fluid, they’re followed by a rush of air.

According to Anne Brown, MD, medical director of women’s health services at Inova Loudoun Hospital in Leesburg, Virginia, “the beginning of the third trimester is when most women begin to feel fetal hiccups, but you can see them on a sonogram as early as the first trimester, when baby’s diaphragm develops.”

What Causes Fetal Hiccups?

Unlike with kids and adults, gobbling up lunch too fast won’t cause fetal hiccups. Rather, they’re simply a side effect of baby’s “trying out” all the new things she can do. When baby hiccups in the womb, several developmental milestones are occurring—indications that she’s on track to make her grand entrance into the world in just a few short months. Here’s what’s happening developmentally as baby starts to hiccup:

Respiratory system.
Baby’s ability to inhale and exhale amniotic fluid—and therefore hiccup—is a good sign that his diaphragm is developing nicely. This process actually begins around week 10, though you probably won’t be able to actually feel fetal hiccups for a few more months, Brown says.

Nervous system.
According to Brandi Ring, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Mile High OB-GYN in Denver, “fetal hiccups indicate the activation of the nerve that controls the diaphragm.” They help confirm that the brain and spinal cord are intact and doing their job. In other words, fetal hiccups mean that baby is becoming neurologically developed enough to survive outside the womb, Ring says. Which is definitely good news!

Besides breathing, baby is also practicing suckling, thumb-sucking and yawning—you know, all those adorable things she’ll do when she’s born. And all these activities can result in hiccups too, says Shar La Porte, a certified nurse midwife at Midwifery Care NYC in Brooklyn, New York.

Fetal Hiccups: How Often Is Normal?

Because every pregnancy is unique, there’s no hard and fast rule as to how frequently hiccups should or should not occur. La Porte explains that fetal hiccups can occur randomly and often, sometimes several times in a day. Still, some babies don’t seem to hiccup often, and that’s fine too, as long as you feel other movements in the belly.

By the time the third trimester rolls around, you’ve probably grown familiar with baby’s rhythms. This is also the time when you’ll likely feel more frequent fetal hiccups, which will then decrease as you get closer to delivery. (If they increase during the three to four weeks leading up to your due date, call your doctor to make sure it’s not an umbilical cord issue.)

How can you be sure the movements you’re feeling are normal? Trust your instincts. Never hesitate to contact your ob-gyn with questions or concerns. Although fetal hiccups are perfectly normal and healthy for baby, any concerns you have about baby’s movements should be addressed immediately and monitored.

If you’re doing a daily kick count with baby (i.e., recording how often she moves within an hour during the same time of day each day), count each hiccup as a movement too. After all, according to Brown, hiccups in the womb are “one of the most common fetal movements.”

How to Stop Fetal Hiccups

While hiccups in utero are normal, all that popping can be quite distracting, especially if you’re trying to get through, say, a work meeting (or a nap!). But as is the case with our own hiccups, there isn’t a surefire way to stop baby’s hiccups in the womb. Ring suggests that changing positions, walking around and drinking water might work, since any new stimulus encourages baby to shift gears. But the best way to deal with fetal hiccups? Simply embrace them. “Fetal hiccups are one of many things that are a part of pregnancy,” Brown says. “Eventually it gets to a point where you won’t notice them much.” (Now if we could only say the same thing about those constant food cravings.)

Updated August 2017

Photo: Raymond Forbes