Why Newborn Babies Are Fussy In The Evening (Besides Colic)

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We’re talking today about something that most of us parents have experienced. It’s brutal. It’s intense. It makes us want to grab the nearest set of earplugs.

We’re talking about The Witching Hour.

You know what we mean, right? That time during the late afternoon/early evening when our newborns suddenly begin wailing for no apparent reason and WILL NOT STOP?

During The Witching Hour, nothing calms our newborns. Feedings are fruitless. Pacifiers are pointless. Lullabies are lacking. It’s hour after hour of red-faced crying, and it often doesn’t end until long after the sun has gone down.

Nicole’s Note
“My son didn’t cry a lot in the evening, but boy was he fussy if I wasn’t nursing him virtually non-stop. I camped out on the sofa 5p-9p almost every evening!”

These bouts of evening fussiness aren’t just hard to listen to; they do major damage to sleep! A baby who’s wailing won’t usually settle down for a nap, and a baby who’s spent the last 4 or 5 hours crying is much less likely to sleep through the night.

So why do our newborn babies do this?

Colic Is Sometimes To Blame

Many parents chalk this newborn behavior up to colic. Simply put, colic refers to any prolonged, very intense crying (more intense than “standard” crying) that seems to have no real cause. And these episodes of colic almost always begin during (you guessed it) late afternoon or early evening.

It’s estimated that around 20% of babies experience real colic. Unfortunately, there’s no known cause of colic. Lots of people theorize that colic is somehow related to intestinal troubles — gas, indigestion, etc. The theory is that gas and indigestion cause abdominal pain, and that’s what makes our newborns cry so inconsolably.

What If It’s Not Colic? Other Causes of Nighttime Fussiness

But what if your newborn’s fussiness isn’t true colic? What if it’s just plain old regular fussing? There are a few other possible causes of your little one’s evening crankiness…

  • Overtiredness If your newborn doesn’t have the best sleep patterns, overtiredness may be the reason for his nighttime fussiness. Over time, as your baby misses more and more sleep, his sleep debt grows. And he eventually gets to a point where he’s so exhausted and overtired that he simply wails or fusses non-stop.
  • Overstimulation In most of our homes, daytime is far more stimulating than nighttime. There’s light and noise and loads of activity. And even though your newborn baby isn’t exactly participating in all that activity, she’s certainly witnessing it. All of that can combine to make her feel overstimulated, and that can cause her to fuss.
  • Tummy Trouble Gas can cause discomfort (as we mentioned earlier), and that discomfort can lead to some real wailing by your little one. And if you’re nursing, the foods you eat could be contributing to your baby’s tummy issues.
  • Nicole’s Note
    “In the Helpdesk, we are seeing more and more babies with dairy sensitivity, which can be passed from mom to baby through breastmilk. However, don’t be so quick to blame your milk. As soon as I was about to cut out dairy from my diet, my son got over the hump of his evening fussiness. Give your baby some time before assuming it’s your milk.”

  • Needing to “tank up” on milk Some experts have noticed that babies tend to “cluster feed” in the evening. In other words, they have far more frequent feeds in the evening than they normally do throughout the rest of the day, sometimes feeding once every hour (or more!). It seems like once they finish nursing, or taking a bottle, they’re crying for more within 30 or 40 minutes. Of course, this can be frustrating for parents, but experts theorize that babies may need to do this in order to sleep longer stretches at night. Often, babies who cluster feed will have their longest stretch of sleep after their cluster feeds are over. So that evening fussiness may be baby’s way of initiating some cluster feeds. For a more information on cluster feeding, take a look at this KellyMom.com post.
  • Getting less attention When you think about what’s happening around your house in the late afternoon and early evening, what comes to mind? Do you have older kids who are coming home from school? Is your partner coming home from work? Are you in the kitchen, working to get food ready and on the table? Let’s face it — for many of us, late afternoon and early evening is a busy time. So busy, in fact, that it’s often hard to find enough time to hold and pay attention to your baby. I’ve heard so many parents lament this — “It seems like she waits to cry until I’ve just started making dinner!” Well, that’s probably no accident; you can’t exactly hold her with both hands and chop those vegetables, after all! And that could be the one of the causes of your baby’s evening fussiness — you might simply have less attention to give her in the evenings. Babies may get lonely, too.
  • Nicole’s Note
    “When I had my second son, I wore him in a sling while my older son ‘chased’ me around the kitchen. That gave both of them the attention they needed at that time of day. A bonus was my younger son would fall asleep in a mere 60 seconds in the sling. :)”

How to Banish Evening Fussiness

There’s no quick fix for The Witching Hour, unfortunately. It’s something that gets better with time (most babies outgrow it after 3 or 4 months), but how are parents (and newborns!) supposed to survive until then?

Here are some simple techniques that can help alleviate your newborn’s evening crankiness…

  • Focus on the sleep. If you know your newborn isn’t getting the sleep she needs, work to help her catch up on her rest. Read up on tips to get her sleeping better, and start laying a good foundation now so that she’ll be able to sleep through the night when she’s ready.
  • Hold your baby and walk/bounce/rock/dance/etc. For most babies, being held close to their parents and gently rocked (or bounced, or swung, or swayed, or some variation therein) is enough to calm them right down.
  • Wear your baby. This works the same way as the previous tip, but it provides the added bonus of leaving your hands free for other things.
  • Burp, burp, burp. If you do suspect that gas is the culprit in your newborn’s evening crying, be diligent about burping after feeds.
  • Change your diet. If you’re nursing, think about what you’re eating that could be triggering tummy trouble for your baby. Spicy foods, caffeine, and carbonated drinks may be culprits.
  • Recite your mantra. Repeat to yourself, “This too shall pass.” Write it on your bathroom mirror, if you have to — just keep reminding yourself that eventually, this will get better! Because it will. It always does. A few months from now, the fog will most likely lift, and those evening crying sessions will be a thing of the past. And thank goodness. A parent’s eardrums can only take so much!

What are/were the causes of your baby’s evening fussiness? Colic, or something else? Share your story!

Think your baby’s evening crankiness is related to a lack of sleep? Please be sure to pick up your FREE copy of 5 (tear-free) Ways to Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night, our e-Book with tear-free tips to help your baby sleep better. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using a unique approach and practical tools for success, our e-books help you and your baby sleep through the night and nap better. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.

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14 Responses to Why Newborn Babies Are Fussy In The Evening (Besides Colic)

  1. Lindsay says:

    I have had the misfortune of having 4 milk sensitive babies. I love yogurt, ice cream, a tall glass of milk with Ovaltine and even cottage cheese. But I can’t have those things while I’m breastfeeding. Cheese seems ok in small amounts. They were simply inconsolable well after the 4 month mark if I gave into temptation and had dairy other than butter or cheese. Oh and too much cheese seemed to do them in as well.

    I don’t remember this with my boys because its been over a decade, but my girls would get fussy from overstimulation and over tiredness. My eldest girl would get overtired very easily as she will ONLY sleep in her bed and has never slept more than 16 hours in a day. She’s 20 months and sleeps about 12 hours a day including nap. My 2 month old is a sleeper, so I know her issue is strictly overstimulation. She sleeps a good 18+ hours still and tends to be awake more in the evening. As a matter of fact, it’s 11 am and she’s zonked. I admit to taking advantage of her sleeping a lot. Having 2 under 2 will do that.

  2. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Lindsay — I had 2 under 2 for a season as well, so I know what you mean! Exhausting. :)

    Thanks for mentioning the milk sensitivity here — I’m coming to realize how common milk issues are for babies and young children. A good “fussiness culprit” to keep in mind, if nothing else seems to be working.

  3. Katie says:

    Gosh I remember this, I’d almost forgotten it now as it was a year ago! But reading this brought memories flooding back of the cluster feeding, the only way to pacify her. She’d fuss from about 5pm and feed on and off til anywhere up to 11pm, id eat tea on the sofa with her feeding in the rugby hold! then at the end of the night it would magically pass!! Wierd. Still, I miss those times. To anyone going through this it’s true, it does pass and you do forget…probably coz you just move onto a different challenge!! :) I still to this day think she had bad tummy pains, u could hear it gurgling and bubbling. I wish I’d tried swaddling with a SwaddleMe product rather than a blanket. That worked at 4 months but I discovered it too late! X

  4. Melinda says:

    My son fussed because of colic. Someone suggested going to a chiropractor and that worked miracles! He started sleeping for 6-7 hours straight when he was about 2 1/2 months old. He was cluster feeding in the evenings though.

  5. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Katie — amazing how quickly time passes, isn’t it? And you’re right — as soon as you conquer one challenge, you’re on to the next. And often, you look back at past challenges and think, “Why did I think that was so bad?” I try to remember that — that years from now, I’ll look back on the things the parenting things that feel hard now and think, “That wasn’t so bad.” Helps me keep perspective! :)

    @ Melinda — interesting recommendation! I’ve never done this with my own kids, but I know people who have, and they all had good results, too.

  6. Erin says:

    This brings back memories! My gorgeous daughter would have her witching hours as soon as the sun went down each day… She would go from an angel to her now infamous nickname ‘the beast’ lol it stopped at around 3 months. We found white noise such a vacuum cleaner really helped her settle, using a sling and using a ‘love to dream’ swaddle. No she is 8.5 months old and surprisingly her best time of the day is now the late afternoon and earlybevening! Another thing I think contributed to her witching hours was keeping her up too long during the day. I admit, I was clueless when it came to wake times and napping and only switched on to it when she was around 3 months… So my advice is to really watch the clock, be aware of their current recommended wake time and start your sleep routine at the first sign of tiredness. And remember… This WILL pass!

  7. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Erin — thanks for commenting, and for reassuring those moms who have newborns at home that it does indeed get better! Good recommendation about watching the clock and preventing overtiredness — it seems like newborns are extra sensitive to that, doesn’t it?

  8. Kendra says:

    Definitely the sleep deprivation for my little guy! I was mistakenly bent on getting him on a schedule and was following infamous advice to “keep him up” to help him sleep better at night. I didn’t realize this was wrong until he was about 4 months old, but I do hope to not make the same mistakes twice with future kids!

  9. Maggie says:

    My baby girl was fussy, fussy! Sleeping only 1.5-2 hours a night for the first 6 weeks. I walked laps around my house! Finally, after multiple appointments with a general practitioner and chiropractor, I took her to a pediatrician. (we live in a small town, an hour away from a city). She was diagnosed with Milk Soy Protein Intolerance (MSPI). I changed my diet to eliminate dairy AND soy and noticed a difference in 36 hours! Within a week, she was sleeping 5 hours at a time, was happy, and I felt like a new mommy!

  10. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Kendra — well, you’re certainly not alone in that! I think lots of new parents (myself included) fall into that trap. We impose our own sleeping habits on our kids — we figure that if staying awake and “getting good and tired” helps us sleep at night, it’ll help them, too.

    @ Maggie — thanks for sharing this! I know food sensitivities (particularly milk sensitivities) are sometimes a silent, hidden culprit of sleeplessness. Glad you were able to figure this out quickly and make a change!

  11. Suzie McGill says:

    My son had colic from 6 weeks old until exactly 4 months. My hubby and I have no family nearby so we just dealt with his fussiness by taking turns walking and burping him. Sometimes a little massage on his tummy worked. Cluster feeds would last from 6pm until midnight or 1am some nights. I tried dropping wheat, milk and dairy products altogether and only drank mint or ginger tea, nothing worked. Eventually we used gripe water and it was like an instant off switch! 5 nights of a tsp a night and he ate at 6pm and fell asleep for 3 hours. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves! A little later, he was singing himself to sleep for a solid 8 hour sleep at 7 pm. Blissful!

  12. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Suzie McGill — thanks for mentioning what worked and what didn’t; that’s going to be really helpful for moms who find this post and are struggling with their own newborns’ fussiness.

    So glad to hear you all survived that phase, and that things turned out well in the end! :)

  13. Menikda says:

    I have 2 months old triplets.
    We have a very good night routine. I sponge them and literally bath them in eir bath at 6 pm. They have their milk and are in longs levied body suit type pjs and they sleep like angels at the end of their milk ( bottle fed)
    I make the next two Feds ( 9 pm and 1 am ) respectively and fed them in their sleep . Tis way I get to the, and meet their needs befor they wake and cry. They don’t wake up till 5 am unless there is a nappy change with the3 am feed.
    I don’t know whether feeding intheri slep is good or ad but we have a very good nights rest and the barstool.
    Come 5 am they fed lustily ( I guess this is what you call cluster feeding) every hour till about 9 am when they finally settle downt oabout 2 hrs sleep until their bath at 11 am.
    Would like comments pls. This is my routine having read a couple of books and of course motherly instinct!

  14. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Menikda — triplets!! Wow!! Congratulations to you! :) I’d say that at 2 months, your babies are still too young for any real sleep training. Therefore, the best thing for you to be doing is the thing that keeps you and your babies happy and rested. It sounds like that’s happening for you now, so I say carry on!

    If you start to notice sleep issues down the road, however, you can start to do some real sleep training after 4 months.

    Thanks for commenting!