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The Baby Witching Hour: Why it Happens and How to Help Your Crying Baby

Updated: 4 days ago




If you're the parent of a young baby, you likely know all too well the frustration that comes with what's known as "the witching hour"—that difficult time of day when your little one cries for seemingly no reason and absolutely nothing soothes them. It can be disheartening to feel so powerless to help your baby, but rest assured—this period is a totally normal part of child development!


This article will discuss some potential causes for the baby witching hour and offer tips on how to help your baby during this tough period.



In this article:


What is the witching hour?

The "witching hour" is a period of time in the late afternoon or early evening when very young babies might be especially fussy and hard to soothe.


Most babies cry between 45 minutes to two hours per day during their first months of life, with their fussiness peaking in the evening. The timing of the witching hour varies by baby, but usually occurs sometime between 5:00 pm and 11:00 pm.


A concerned-looking mother holds a fussy baby.

This is a common phase for many babies—you aren't alone!


What ages experience the witching hour?

Babies might begin to experience the witching hour as soon as two weeks after birth. This fussy period usually peaks around six weeks of age.


Most babies outgrow the witching hour by the time they are three to four months of age.


However, every baby is different, so the timing and severity of the witching hour can vary significantly. Some lucky babies and parents never experience the witching hour!


Possible causes for the witching hour

There are a number of reasons why some babies might experience extremely fussy periods in the early evening hours, including:


Overstimulation

When babies are exposed to too much sensory input, they can become overstimulated. This is especially common in newborns and young infants, whose developing nervous systems are still adjusting to the world around them.


Loud, sudden noises, bright flashing lights and too much movement, and crowded and chaotic environments can all cause a baby to feel overstimulated and distressed.


Evening can sometimes be a crazy time in a household as parents come home from work, older siblings return from school and activities, and everyone is in a rush to make dinner, complete household tasks, and prepare for the next day. This flurry of activity can be overwhelming for young babies.


Moreover, even normal things can be overstimulating to a baby’s developing brain. For example, as the brain matures a baby may become aware of feeling bored but not know what to do about it—so they cry!


Tiredness

A young baby yawns with closed eyes.

Although it may not be obvious, babies also work hard during the day learning and growing! By evening, you may be dealing with an overtired baby who is more likely to be irritable and fussy.


Hunger

During the evenings, babies may be feeling extra hungry, especially during the witching hour. This can make them want to eat frequently—as often as every 30 minutes—and cry if they aren't immediately satisfied. This frequent need to eat is called "cluster feeding."


Don't worry if your baby wants to cluster feed. Their body may just be trying to ensure that they're full and prepared for a long night of sleep. Alternatively, your baby might be getting ready for a growth spurt or making up for a smaller feeding earlier in the day.


Gas

Babies generally need to burp more often than adults because they tend to swallow air while they are drinking. This can cause excess gas to build up in their stomachs, which can cause discomfort and fussiness.


In addition to crying, a baby with gas pains might show the following signs:

  • Arching their back

  • Pulling their legs into their tummy

  • Clenching their fists

After a day of eating every couple of hours—especially if they are cluster feeding—your baby may be extra gassy in the evening.


Colic

The term "colic" is sometimes used interchangeably with the experience of a witching hour. However, colic generally refers to an otherwise normal and healthy baby whose crying is not due to hunger, tiredness, overstimulation, or other readily identifiable reason. On a list of reasons why babies cry inconsolably, it's basically the "other" option.


Colicky babies cry excessively for no apparent reason for at least three hours a day, three days a week, for three weeks.


Though the cause of colic remains unknown, several theories suggest that it may be related to an immature digestive or nervous system, food intolerances, or issues with self-regulation.


Ways to help calm your baby

Try a pacifier

Babies naturally have a strong sucking reflex—that's why they love to suck on their fists, toys, and anything within reach.


When a baby sucks on a pacifier, it stimulates their brain to release the hormone oxytocin, the "feel-good hormone." Oxytocin can have a calming effect on babies and help to reduce stress.


A mother holds a pacifier in a young baby's mouth.


Use white noise

White noise is a consistent, soothing sound that can mask other noises. Think of it like a sound wall, effectively blocking out distractions and creating a calming environment that can lead to better sleep.


White noise can be a particularly helpful tool if your baby is fussy because they are overstimulated or overwhelmed by new or jarring sounds. White noise mimics the sounds that your baby heard in the womb, including their mother's heartbeat and blood flow.


Just keep the following tips in mind if you'd like to try white noise with your baby:

  1. Select a white noise machine or app with multiple options—such as running water, static, or rain—so you can figure out which sound your baby finds most calming.

  2. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that white noise machines be placed at least seven feet away from your baby's crib or sleep space.

  3. The AAP also recommends keeping the white noise volume under 50 decibels (approximately the volume of a household refrigerator). This should block other sounds but not overwhelm your baby or harm their hearing. Note that this volume is lower than the maximum volume of most white noise machines.

Just remember that every baby is different and yours may not find white noise soothing!


Address causes of gas

There are a variety of causes of infant gas. Addressing these causes might reduce your baby's gas and any associated discomfort and fussiness.

  1. Burp your baby frequently during and after feedings.

  2. Hold your baby upright for 20 to 30 minutes after a feeding.

  3. If bottle feeding, use the proper technique to minimize the amount of air that your baby swallows.

  4. If breastfeeding, talk to your doctor about whether certain foods that you eat might be contributing to your baby's gas, such as dairy, soy products, beans, carbonated drinks, and spicy foods.


Try a change of environment

Babies are sensitive to their caregivers' emotions—they feel when you are stressed, but relax more easily when you are calm. So, when you feel overwhelmed by a fussy baby, try going outside. The fresh air and calming surroundings can help you and your little one breathe easier.


A cheerful baby rides in a stroller outside.

Plus, being in daylight during the late afternoon and early evening can improve your baby's nighttime sleep, leading to a better-rested baby and parents.


Get moving

Motion is also a great way to soothe a fussy baby—it reminds them of the feeling of being in the womb.


During the witching hour, try going for a walk with the stroller or baby wearing outside or around the house. The movement may be just what your baby needs to settle down.


Give a baby massage

Baby massage can be a wonderful way to help your baby relax and fall asleep. Massaging your baby's stomach can also help to ease discomfort and facilitate burping by breaking up gas bubbles.


An adult massages a baby wearing a diaper.

If you'd like to try baby massage:

  1. Place your baby on their back on a flat, comfortable surface, such as a changing table or the floor.

  2. Rub your hands together to warm them up a bit. You can use a bit of baby lotion or baby oil if you like.

  3. Massage your baby's legs from the thigh to the foot, using long, gentle strokes.

  4. Massage your baby's arms in the same way, from shoulder to hand.

  5. Using a gentle circular motion, massage your baby's belly in a clockwise direction.

  6. Gently massage your baby's back from the shoulders down.

  7. Pay attention to your baby's cues—stop the massage if they become fussy or seem uncomfortable.

Get in a warm bath

A calm baby lies in a baby tub with soapy water.

The feeling of a nice warm bath can help to soothe a fussy baby. The sound of the running water can also have a calming effect. You can even get into the bath with your baby to help both of you relax. Just be sure that your baby stays warm.


When to consult with your doctor

A mother holds a baby while a doctor checks the baby's reflexes.

Although it's common for babies to experience evening fussiness—and even excessive crying—there are a few situations when you should consult with your doctor to rule out any underlying issues.

  1. Your baby cries for more than three hours every evening.

  2. Your baby seems to be experiencing pain or discomfort.

  3. Your baby's crying is accompanied by fever, vomiting, or loose or bloody stools.

  4. Your baby is not gaining weight as expected.

  5. You have tried multiple methods for calming your baby without success.


Surviving your baby's witching hour

Stay calm

As a parent, it can be extremely difficult to deal with a fussy baby for hours at a time. If you feel yourself getting frustrated by your baby's cries, it's essential that you take a break to help yourself calm down.


The stress of dealing with an inconsolable baby can sometimes lead parents to shake or otherwise hurt their child. Shaking can lead to brain damage, blindness, and even death.


Let your partner take over for a few minutes and go into another room until you feel calmer.


If you're caring for your baby on your own, make sure that your baby's physical needs have been met, place them in a safe place (such as their crib with no blankets or stuffed animals) and leave them alone for 10-15 minutes. Crying alone for a short time will not hurt your baby and will give you a chance to calm down so you can keep your baby safe.


Understand your baby’s development

Pathfinder Health is here to take the stress and confusion out of child development. Through our app, parents can track and learn about their child’s milestones, take official screening questionnaires, and access resources to help them promote their child’s development, including more than 800 articles about child development, health, and growth.


You can download the Pathfinder Health app HERE.


Remember that it's only a phase!

Although the evenings may feel interminable now, your baby will not experience a witching hour forever! Someday the evenings will be a time for playing and looking at books, not consoling a screaming child.


Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the witching hour for babies?

The "witching hour" is a time during the day, usually between 5:00 pm and 11:00 pm, when young babies are extra fussy and hard to soothe. The witching hour can begin as soon as 2 weeks after birth, usually peaks around 6 weeks, and ends when the baby is 3-4 months.


2. What time is the witching hour?

The timing of the baby witching hour varies by child, but usually occurs between 5:00 pm and 11:00 pm. By this time of day, many young babies are tired, hungry, and overstimulated by all of the evening activity in the household, leading them to be extremely fussy.


3. What causes the baby witching hour?

There are a number of potential causes for the baby witching hour. A baby might be overstimulated by household activity, overtired, hungry, or gassy. They might also be experiencing colic, which is crying for no apparent reason.


4. Does the witching hour happen to every baby?

The witching hour is extremely common but does not happen to every baby. But don’t be discouraged if your baby is extra fussy in the evening—they should outgrow it by 3 to 4 months.


5. When do babies outgrow the witching hour?

Most babies outgrow the witching hour around 3-4 months. By this age, they should have a more predictable sleeping and eating schedule and will be better able to self-soothe when overstimulated or overtired.


6. How do I calm my baby during the witching hour?

Some ways to calm your baby include:

  • If they seem hungry, feed them frequently (“cluster-feeding”)

  • Offer a pacifier—sucking releases the feel-good hormone, oxytocin

  • Get moving—try a walk with a baby carrier or stroller

  • Try baby massage

  • Reduce excess stimulation—go to a darker room and use white noise

  • Give them a warm bath



The Takeaway

It's common for many young babies to have a fussy period during the evening. Although the witching hour can feel like an incredibly difficult time, with patience and understanding you'll make it through!


Connect with your baby by paying attention to their body language and cues. Don’t forget to breathe deeply and take a break for yourself when you need one. Finally, use some of the strategies mentioned in this article—from taking advantage of white noise to creating a relaxing environment—to soothe your little one and make life easier during the evening.


Above all else, stay calm—this too shall pass!



Sources:

  1. Hugh SC, Wolter NE, Propst EJ, et al. Infant Sleep Machines and Hazardous Sound Pressure Levels. Pediatrics (2014) 133 (4): 677–681. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2013-3617

  2. Mai T, Fatheree NY, Gleason W, et al. Infantile Colic: New Insights into an Old Problem. Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 2018 Dec;47(4):829-844. doi: 10.1016/j.gtc.2018.07.008


Bio of Dr. Paul Patterson


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