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.
“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.
- 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.
“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.”
“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!