What are hiccups?

Hiccups, or singultuses, are the repetitive diaphragmatic spasms we all love to hate.

They can strike anyone, anytime, at any age — even infants in utero. They come without warning and can last anywhere from a couple minutes to a few hours.

What are hiccups and how do they happen?

The diaphragm is the muscle between the chest and the abdomen that regulates breathing. When the diaphragm contracts, the lungs expand and are filled with oxygen. When the diaphragm relaxes, carbon dioxide exits the lungs.

Events that can cause the diaphragm to contract involuntarily and repeatedly include:

  • swallowing too much air
  • eating large meals
  • drinking carbonated beverages
  • sudden changes in body or environmental temperature
  • emotional stress
  • excitement

These spasms cause the vocal cords to close abruptly, resulting in a sudden gush of air entering the lungs. That chain reaction is responsible for the all too familiar gasping sound that gave the condition its common name: hiccup!

Toddlers are more prone to the hiccups. “Because the control mechanisms for reflexes are not completely settled yet, nerve impulses can be confused by conflicting signals in toddlers,” explains Christopher Hobbs, PhD, LAc, AHG.

What are some safe remedies for my toddler?

Hiccups typically go away on their own after a few minutes. But there are a few all-natural remedies you can try if your toddler has the hiccups.

  • Chamomile, fennel, or peppermint tea. Chamomile, fennel, and peppermint are some of the best and safest herbs for relieving the muscle spasms that cause hiccups, according to Dr. Hobbs. He recommends using a dropper to squeeze small amounts of the warm tea into your toddler’s mouth. Repeat until the hiccups stop.
  • Light pressure on the upper stomach. Gently press on your child’s upper stomach area in quick downward movements. Time each movement to coincide with the hiccup. This can be tricky given the unpredictability of hiccups. Dr. Hobbs stresses keeping the pressure light when dealing with toddlers.
  • Focus on breathing. There are a number of remedies that involve the breath, like breathing into a paper bag and holding your breath for as long as you can. One way to stop them is to “inhale forcefully through the mouth at the same time the hiccup occurs,” says Dr. Hobbs. This counteracts the spasm as it occurs.
  • Bring on the tickles. This is a gentler alternative to the scare tactic that frequently comes up as a hiccup cure. It will take your toddler’s mind off of their hiccups, which is usually all it takes to make them go away. Just be sure to back off immediately if your toddler tells you to stop.
  • Drink cold water. Sipping on a glass of cold water may sooth an irritated diaphragm so it can return to its normal movement pattern.

What not to do

There are some remedies you want to avoid. Especially when young children are concerned.

  • Don’t give your toddler cayenne water. Spicy food can get rid of the hiccups, but it can also induce hiccups or make them worse. “Kids usually don’t appreciate hot peppers at all, and it can even make them quite upset,” says Dr. Hobbs.
  • Don’t scare the wits out of your kid. A good fright is a popular suggestion for getting rid of the hiccups. However, you don’t want to traumatize your child. If you do go this route, make it more about the element of surprise and less about scaring the daylights out of your child.
  • Don’t have your child drink while upside down. Drinking something while hanging upside down is another popular hiccup remedy. However, it could cause choking and is best avoided.

What if the hiccups don’t go away?

In general, hiccups only last about an hour or two at most. But there have been cases where the hiccups have gone on for much longer.

If hiccups persist for more than 48 hours or if they begin to interfere with eating, sleeping, or breathing, see your doctor immediately. They may be able to prescribe something to alleviate the hiccups.

Persistent hiccups in adults can also be a sign of nerve damage or irritation, or central nervous system or metabolic disorders, according to the Mayo Clinic, but this is extremely rare in children.

The takeaway

Bear in mind that none of these remedies have been scientifically proven. According to a study published in the Journal of the National Medical Association, none of the techniques used over the five-year study were found to be effective in treating the hiccups.

Should the hiccups last longer than 48 hours or lead to difficulties breathing, sleeping, or eating, see your doctor right away.

Hiccups are self-limiting and should disappear on their own after a few minutes to a few hours. So, unless they last longer than 48 hours or lead to difficulties breathing, sleeping, or eating, it’s best to simply see it for what it is: an annoying but harmless bout of hiccups!