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Surviving the Witching Hour with your newborn baby

Does your baby cry and cry uncontrollably in the late afternoon/evening and you have no clue what’s wrong with them?

Have you heard words such as “colic”. “reflux” and “low milk supply” being thrown around by friends and family?

But when your baby is healthy, growing well, eating well and producing plenty of dirty nappies, it can be frustrating when nothing you do helps to soothe them.

It’s so confusing when your baby is crying and you just don’t know what’s wrong. As parents we seek to understand and immediately stop crying.

The noise is designed to invoke a reaction in us biologically so that we react to help the infant. It’s a call to action, and our brains respond in a way that tells us to do something immediately.

But sometimes no matter what you do, your baby just will not stop bawling their little eyes out.

If you’re in the depths of despair with your baby’s late-in-the-day crying, here’s an answer that should hopefully make it a little easier for you to cope with.

Many babies have a period where they will cry uncontrollably in the evenings. Some mothers refer to it as “the Witching Hour”.

No-one is quite sure exactly why babies get fussy at this time, but it’s likely to be a combination of being overtired from the day plus wanting to cluster feed.

The good news is, this phase will be over by around three to four months.

What is the witching hour?

The witching hour is a period of near-uncontrollable crying from a baby who is otherwise healthy, and tends to happen in the late afternoon to early evening.

Although it’s called the witching hour, this is a little misleading as it often lasts much longer than an hour. My daughter would cry and be fussy for anything from two to four hours.

The term witching hour is often interchangeable with witching hour, colic and the term PURPLE crying.

PURPLE crying is a “way to help parents understand this time in their baby’s life, which is a normal part of every infant’s development.

PURPLE crying begins at about two weeks of age and continues to around three to four months, which is the same kind of timescale as you may see with the witching hour and with colic.

My experience with the witching hour

You gain a hell of a lot when you become a mother, but you also lose a few things too. Your marbles being one of them.

For me, one of the biggest losses that I struggled with was my evenings.

No matter how tough work had been, or how knackered I felt, it was always a comfort to know I could slob out in front of the television with a bag of M&Ms and just do nothing.

Then I had my first baby, and suddenly I realised this was a 24/7 kind of deal.

It might seem like you should be able to squeeze a little bit of “you” time in somewhere, because they have to sleep at some point after all. But it turns out that one time a newborn especially does not want to sleep is in the evenings.

I had high hopes for at least a couple of hours every evening after a long day of caring for my baby and fielding visitors. A couple of hours to watch Masterchef or just veg out in front of Cops on Camera with my husband.

My baby daughter had other plans.

From around 5pm onwards my first daughter would scream and scream like we were trying to murder her.

She was utterly inconsolable. A few times we just tried to feed her more milk, as we thought maybe she was just really, really hungry. She promptly threw the excess feed up. Then started crying again.

Her crying would last until around 9pm or even 10pm on a bad night. There was no chance of watching television as we attempted to rock her, because her wailing was so loud I thought my ears would bleed.

I have also found with both my children that when they cry I can think of nothing else but soothing them and making the noise stop.

It was after about a week of this behaviour that I decided it was time to call for divine intervention, or as most people call it, Google.

Fussy evenings seemed to be a common problem, so common in fact that they had a name. The “Witching Hour”.

The only context in which I had ever heard the “Witching Hour” referred to was horror films about ghosts.

But apparently it’s also a reference to the uncontrollable crying that a newborn baby inflicts on their parents from around two weeks. It can last every single evening for the first few months and if you’ve been through it, it is hell.

Luckily my first child settled down all on her own after around eight weeks.

I assumed when her sister came along she wouldn’t be any worse, but maybe just around the same. I was wrong. She took the “Witching Hour” to a whole other level.

Her outraged little pink face would screw up into a grimace and she would yell and yell for hours.

Baby crying uncontrollably in the witching hour

She would nod off for mere minutes while feeding, only to startle awake seconds later crying again. At three months she was still utterly distraught every single evening. The 7pm bedtime was absolutely out of the question.

Some would say this must have been colic or trapped wind? There must have been some kind of reason behind it?

But what is colic?

Some people say it’s caused by trapped wind or something to do with the digestive system not yet being fully formed, but no one really has a proper explanation of what it actually physically means.

Witching hour vs colic

The witching hour and colic often get confused, and this is mainly because colic is such a vague term that it tends to be used to cover any prolonged crying from a baby.

Explaining away all crying with the simple word “colic” can just leave parents more confused, because it’s as if their child has some kind of mystery illness or condition that they should be doing something about.

There are medications, baby bottles and special formulas specifically for dealing with colic. And yet, even the NHS isn’t really sure how to explain the condition:

“Colic is the name for excessive, frequent crying in a baby who appears to be otherwise healthy. It’s a common problem that affects up to one in five babies.”

There is no hard and fast evidence about what causes a baby to display colic symptoms, which is much the same as the Witching Hour.

Some people think it may be related to problems with trapped wind, but again there’s no hard definition on this. The NHS also states it could be related to issues with food allergies

In my opinion many new parents are surprised at quite how much their newborn can cry, and how resistent they can be to being comforted. I believe more than one in five could technically be given the “colic” label.

So why does it have to be called colic? Can we not just call a spade a spade? Newborn babies go through a particularly fussy period of development from about week two to around four months. It’s hard, it’s extremely trying, it’s exhausting, but it’s totally normal.

This is the theory that PURPLE crying puts across too – this is a normal phase that many babies go through.

Of course when you’re in the thick of it, it’s easy to assume there must be something wrong.

This table gives you an idea of the key similarities with colic, as explained by the NHS, compared to the witching hour. As you can see, they are pretty similar.

Witching hourColic
Baby is hard to settleBaby is hard to settle
Baby cries for lengthy periods of time – usually in the eveningBaby cries for more than 3 hours a day, 3 days a week
Baby may feed frequentlyThey go red in the face
They bring their knees up to the tummy and arch their back
Their tummy rumbles or they are very windy

In my effort to figure out what was wrong with my baby when we were experiencing the witching hour I tried a few things before realising I just needed to surrender to this phase. After consulting a GP, trying to cut dairy out of my diet and asking the health visitor, it turned out she was just kind of annoyed in the evenings.

It could have been because she had a long day and was overwhelmed by it all.

It could have been because she didn’t like being outside of the womb.

It could have been because she had growing pains.

Or maybe she was just going through something that every baby goes through. She was doing the only thing she could do to express herself, and all of those emotions, physical changes and the exhaustion of learning everything in her new environment.

These fussy evenings coincide with another difficult phase for newborns, known as the fourth trimester. This is where your baby is totally fine when being held, but screams the second you put them down. It’s known as the fourth trimester because the reason for your baby’s fussiness is they are missing life in the womb and don’t want to be parted from you.

Combined, these two issues are exhausting for new parents.

If you are trapped in a relentless cycle of fussy evenings, I am so sorry. It sucks. But I have got some tips to help you!

The best tips for coping with the witching hour

You can’t do anything about it

Accepting the fact that in most cases there is nothing you can do to control this is the first step to feeling better about it.

You could spend an absolute fortune on different kinds of baby bottles and other devices, but at the end of the day there is no cure to the fussy evenings.

They just need to run their course.

Accept help

Get your other half to split the evenings with you so you’re not dealing with the crying on your own all of the time.

Get someone else over to take the baby for half an hour or so while you take a break from the noise.

Let your baby feed as much as they want

Many babies will “tank up” in the evenings by cluster feeding. This means they may be on and off the boob for hours and hours.

It’s very tiring plus if you have sore nipples it can be very uncomfortable.

Make this easier on yourself by doing the following:

  • Seek out a comfortable spot in your home for cluster feeding, preferably a good breastfeeding station.
  • Use nipple cream to help soothe sore boobs.
  • Try nipple shields to give your nipples a chance to heal.
  • Try feeding while laying down in bed so that you can rest.
  • Drink lots and lots of water.
  • Remind yourself that this behaviour in a breastfed baby is normal and all part of boosting your supply.

Don’t try to force the issue

I drove myself mad trying to get my baby to conform to an evening bedtime routine when she was fussy. The truth is it was a completely pointless effort.

I should have just accepted that she wasn’t going to play ball, and sat down with her until it passed.

Remember that just because your baby isn’t going to bed at 7pm every night now, it doesn’t mean that they won’t soon. This phase passes very suddenly, without warning.

Try to help them get to sleep

If your baby is going through a very fussy period, it can be tough to get them to go to sleep.

Here are a few simple things you can try to help a fussy baby get to sleep:

  • Try setting a bedtime routine, and stick with it, even if it’s not working a lot of them time.
  • You can also try swaddling your baby as this can be a comfort to them. Swaddling is where a baby is wrapped up tight in a blanket that restricts the movement of their arms and legs. Its comforting because it simulates the feeling of being in the womb. If you are struggling to swaddle with a blanket then you can purchase readymade swaddles that simply do up with poppers.
  • White noise and lullabies can also help to soothe an inconsolable baby.

Check out my post on troubleshooting baby sleep issues for more ideas.

Consult your health visitor

Don’t be afraid to ask if you’re really worried. As long as your baby is gaining weight, producing dirty nappies and seems well and alert when awake most of the time, then you shouldn’t need to panic.

However if you need reassurance, it’s never going to be a waste of anyone’s time. Always ask if you feel like something more could be wrong.

If you are looking for more help with getting your baby to settle in the evenings, check out these posts:

25 tips for improving baby sleep

Gentle baby sleep training – no cry method

Life with a baby does get easier

The witching hour - how to cope when baby is fussy in the evening
The witching hour - the secrets to surviving fussy evenings
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The Queen of Collage

Tuesday 10th of April 2018

I feel sorry for the little ones that go through this and their parents. Fortunately my girls didn't go through it but I met some people during my baby massage classes with my first that were hoping the massage would help. #fortheloveofBLOG

Mrs Mummy Harris (@mummyharris86)

Saturday 7th of April 2018

These are great tips and will try to remember these when the twins arrive.. As much as I'm super looking forward to the newborn phase, there is parts - like this, that i'm dreading!!! #fortheloveofBLOG

millerinthecity

Friday 6th of April 2018

Some great tips here and every new mom needs it as well as second time around moms. My second baby developed colic a month after she was born. It was hell and even as a second time mom I felt helpless and depended on so much help from my husband, mom and mother-in-law. #fortheloveofBLOG

Rachel | Kids, Cuddles and Muddy Puddles

Thursday 5th of April 2018

I remember this well...both times! There have been many moments when I thought I'd never get my evenings back. It's only now, at 4.5 and 2.5 that we have a regular 7:30 bedtime for both, and once they are asleep, they mostly stay asleep! Although I tend to wake up sharing my bed with both kids at least twice a week! #fortheloveofBLOG

Kate on thin ice (@kateonthinice)

Thursday 5th of April 2018

Is there any more demanding sound in the world? Remember walking round like a zombie for what seemed like years. My first two were not so bad but my third was off the scale with colic which is such a different sort of cry and hard to bear. Us mums deserve medals and ear protectors too! #FortheLoveofBlog