Most new parents stop being fussy about sleeping when the baby is born since they’re desperate to sleep any time, any place. But what if your child picks up where you left off? Babies the world over have what are called “witching hours.” They’re clearly sleepy but instead of crashing, they get very fussy. Eat, sleep, cry? They can’t make up their minds. For most of these infants, this isn’t a 3 AM witching hour but occurs at the end of the “business” day, usually between 5 PM. and midnight. And while every minute cn feel like an hour when your child’s unhappy and can’t be consoled, these bouts really can last an hour or more.
Challenging is probably an understatement when your tyke is a witching hour baby but take heart. There are steps you can take to deal with a fussy baby at night and promote sleep training at the same time. And all the tactics are quite reasonable, so you won’t feel terrible or like you’re deserting your child to an unhappy fate. Here are tips for handling a witching hour baby:
Know why witching hour happens
There’s always the “life is unfair” explanation, but there are better reasons a baby starts fussing in the late afternoon around 5 p.m. and will not stop. One theory is that a mother’s milk supply is lower at that hour (not too low, nothing that needs an action, just lower as part of normal fluctuations). This might explain the baby’s perfectly normal cluster feeding demands during the witching hour. It also could be the reason the fussy infant tends to doze off mid-feeding and then wake up 10 minutes later in a snit and want food again. Also, like the rest of us, little babies are finishing an active day full of stimulating events around 5 p.m. or a little later. That might make an infant overstimulated to the point where normal soothing won’t help him wind down.
There’s an age component, too. Witching hour tendencies commonly begin when a baby is two or three weeks old. The peak of this developmental stage is usually at six weeks and then (thank goodness!) it usually tapers off when the baby’s 12 weeks old.
Could it be colic?
The witching hour is normal and colic is different. A baby with colic cries for three or more hours per day at least three days a week. This crying jag lasts for three or more weeks each time it occurs. And the crying of a colicky baby is different than that of a merely fussy baby. She will cry intensely and refuse to be soothed. She’ll also indicate physical discomfort and even pain, arching her back for example, or tensing her legs and turning bright red.
Don’t blame yourself
The most important part of coping with a continually and illogically fussy baby is reminding yourself you are not at fault here. Not today, not yesterday and not tomorrow when it happens again. This is a bona fide infant development stage. It’s been around at least since the times when people believed witches and werewolves and the like got extra powerful at twilight, hence the name “witching hour.” Once you’ve quit blaming yourself it’s much easier to stay calm and even a little detached when the baby winds up. And while that doesn’t always make the baby stop fussing, it will help you.
Try preventive measures
To counter the possible limited milk supply, consider “cluster feeding” every hour or so during the witching hours. You can still stick to a more spread out nursing routine the rest of the day and night, but this more frequent feeding might help. After a few days of this approach, if the baby is still crying and fussy starting around 5 p.m. then you’ll know hunger wasn’t at the root of the problem.
To help yourself and your child, either parent or another responsible adult can also try “wearing” a witching hour baby in a sling. This can be soothing for all, and will also make it so you can complete the other structured activities that make up your family’s evening routine. When the whole family is calmly going about their business at the end of the day, a newborn isn’t as likely to get overstimulated or overtired. Even if your family group is mother and infant, a consistent plan for the evening helps you both stay calm. Getting some fresh air while sitting on a blanket in the back yard or strolling the block can also counter witching hour agony. It may or may not calm the baby, but it will definitely refresh mom or dad.
Whether you’re the primary, stay-at-home caregiver or you work outside the home most days, give yourself permission to call for help as long as this phase lasts. If there are two of you, take turns handling the chaos. Single parents should tap their support network for assistance because this is tough and you don’t want to get burned out or the whole family will suffer.
You can also make it a point to relax and rejuvenate during the morning or early afternoon. That way, you’ll have emotional and physical reserves even if witching hour lasts into the night and you don’t get much sleep. That’s one good thing about witching hour: It happens at a predictable time and you can plan around it. And as a stressed-out, stretched thin parent, you should always take the opportunity for self-care. Because witching hour doesn’t last forever, but you’ll always need energy for the next stage of parenting.