What exactly is the baby witching hour, How to soothe baby when it occurs (and regain peace for yourself)? Learn our top tips in this parents’ survival guide.
It's the late afternoon or early evening and you're tired after a long day of taking care of your little one. But suddenly, your baby starts crying and screaming repeatedly, possibly for an hour to a few hours. And this pattern seems to repeat night after night – even after you've tried everything to soothe them. What's going on?
This pattern is known as baby's "witching hour." What exactly is the witching hour, and how to soothe baby when it occurs? How to survive baby's witching hours and regain peace for yourself? We'll break down our tips in this parent's guide.
What Is Baby's Witching Hour?
The "witching hour" refers to a daily pattern where baby starts loudly crying in the late afternoon or early evening, and keeps crying and screaming for hours. This period can occur any time between 5 PM and 11 PM.
If baby has a witching hour, their crying spells will happen consistently, usually at the same time every afternoon or evening, and keep popping up every day for months Witching hours usually start when baby is 2-3 weeks old, peak at the 6 week mark, and then stop suddenly when baby is 3 to 4 months old.
What Causes Baby's Witching Hour?
We don't know why some babies have witching hours. But the witching hours could be caused by overstimulation, or the inability to tune out all the new sights and sounds that surround them. After all, baby was in the soothing womb for so long. They may have naturally ignored all the new stimuli outside the womb for a few weeks, but now that they can't filter these sights and sounds, they may not know what to do. And stimulation may increase during the early evening, when people come home from work or school and the house is more active.
Baby may cry because they haven't learned how to process all the new stimuli, and are overwhelmed. Or, they could be crying because they don't know how to soothe themself after too much stimulation.
Baby could also be consistently overtired, with the overtiredness catching up to them around the same afternoon or early evening period each day. After all, they're still developing their internal clock and their body is only just starting to regulate melatonin. Or, they could have consistent gassiness, leading the witching hour to crop up.
Some babies have witching hours because they have a growth spurt, and may need more breastmilk or formula over a shorter period of time. This leads them to cry because they want to cluster feed (feed more frequently in a shorter timespan) to support their rapid growth.
Other babies may just want to feed more often at night, even without a growth spurt. And sometimes, babies have witching hours because they want more attention when your routines get busier in the early evening.
Learn more about the witching hour, and possible causes, from Mama Natural:
Witching Hour vs. Colic
Is the witching hour the same thing as colic? Sometimes, it is – but not always.
Colicky crying refers to any regular, loud crying that lasts for several hours at a time, sometimes sounds like screaming, and can't be soothed.
Colic isn't any specific health issue, and we don't yet know what causes colic. But it is a fairly common pattern. Around 20% of babies develop colicky crying.
Doctors will usually call a crying spell "colic" if a baby cries 3 hours or more at a time, the crying happens at least 3 days per week, and the crying patterns keep going for at least 3 weeks.
For crying to be colic, it must also start for no reason. Colicky crying doesn't start because baby is tired, hungry, or in need of a diaper change.
In addition, all colicky crying is inconsolable crying – crying that you can't soothe baby out of, no matter how hard you try.
Colicky crying often crops up at the same time each day – and with many babies, that time is an early evening "witching hour."
If baby's witching hour crying consistently lasts for 3 hours or more, keeps popping up daily for several weeks, and you cannot soothe it, then their witching hour is considered colic.
17 Witching Hour Survival Tips
There are several ways you can help soothe baby during their witching hour – and help yourself get more peace. These will be helpful whether or not the witching hour is considered colic. Here are our top 17 witching hour survival tips:
For soothing baby:
1. Create white noise. Turning on a fan or white noise machine, or playing a heartbeat recording, will surround your little one with soothing sounds. This may remind them of their time in the womb and calm them down. You can also try placing baby in a room where they can hear the vacuum or dryer –--this may sound strange, but the dryer and vacuum also create white noise that can sound like the womb.
2. Swaddle your baby. Swaddling baby in a blanket can help them feel safer and calm them down. The secure feeling of the swaddle may also feel like the womb. (Follow the link for a step-by-step guide on how to swaddle baby.)
3. Rock baby or walk with them in a carrier. The motion may remind baby of the womb, and holding them close may also help comfort them.
4. Talk, sing or hum to baby as you hold them close. This may give them the attention they want, and it's another good calming technique. You can combine this with rocking or walking for even more soothing possibilities.
5. Hold baby skin to skin. Skin-to-skin contact doesn't just calm baby down and help lessen crying. It stabilizes baby's breathing and heartbeat, and makes it easier for them to sleep. It may also help you feel calmer as well. And if you are breastfeeding, it will also promote the milk supply you'll need if baby wants to feed more frequently.
6. Cut down on the stimuli. Try to reduce the amount of new sights and sounds that baby is exposed to at once, especially during the witching hour. This may mean turning off the lights and the TV, for example, and taking your little one to the quietest location. If certain stimuli seem to bother baby, try to remove them or avoid exposing baby to them.
7. Change baby's location or position. For example, take them outside, walk around a quiet house with the lights off, or try holding them in different ways. The environmental change may help calm baby down.
8. Use water. Water can be soothing for a baby during the witching hour. If baby needs a bath, pour warm water over them during the bath. If not, swaddle your baby, hold them tight, and let warm water run over the top of baby's head (whether that's water from a sink or water that someone else pours). Make sure that the water is not too hot, and make sure it only runs on baby's head, not their face. Sometimes, the water sound is calming on its own.
9. Watch for hunger cues you may have missed. Is your little one showing signs that they want to feed more often? For example, are they turning their head towards a breast or opening their mouth? They may want to feed more often (cluster feed) due to a growth spurt. Or, if you're breastfeeding, you may have a slower let-down in the evening (perfectly normal!), meaning baby may not be drinking as much milk at each evening feed. But only feed when you see hunger cues – do not overfeed baby. If they have colic, overfeeding can make the colic worse.
10. Consider a pacifier. Your baby may find the sucking calming. You could also let baby suck on one of your fingers, for the same soothing effect.
11. Start bedtime earlier. If baby is 8 weeks old or older, they might be ready to sleep longer at night. Like with any bedtime, keep the room dark and the environment quiet. Minimize disruptions if baby wakes during the nighttime sleep, even if that’s between the new and old bedtimes.
12. If bottle-feeding, switch to a bottle with an anti-colic valve. Baby may be taking in too much air during a feed, leading to gas and discomfort. Anti-colic valves cut down on the air baby will take in during a feed.
13. If formula-feeding, talk to your doctor about a formula switch. Baby may be fussy because they have an intolerance or allergy to a formula ingredient, and may need a hydrolyzed formula, elemental formula, or formula free of cow's milk. Only switch formulas, though, after talking to your doctor.
For helping yourself regain peace:
14. Know when to call in backup. If baby's witching hour is getting overwhelming, don't be afraid to ask for help! If you get too frustrated, this could make things worse, but when you are calm, baby is more likely to be calm. Your partner, other family members, or friends will be glad to step in so you can have a moment to reset.
15. Step out when needed. If baby's witching hour crying is too much to bear, you can always step out for ten minutes or so. Even if you don't have someone to help, you can still lay baby in their crib and close the door. Step outside, take a walk, practice deep breathing, or play your favorite music or show with noise-canceling headphones. Or, you could even take a quick shower. Just do whatever is relaxing for you. This will help you clear your brain and calm down. After all, you know baby is safe. Then, you'll be able to focus on calming baby once your own mind is calmed.
16. Try the "four different things" technique. While practicing deep breathing and walking outside, use this trick to recenter yourself. Find four yellow things, four different plants, four round things, or four things in any category you choose. Name them out loud and point to them. This forces your brain to focus on different things, not what's making you worried.
17. Remember that this will pass. The witching hour is not going to last forever, and baby having witching hours is not a reflection on your parenting. Baby will outgrow the witching hours as they get older.
When to see a doctor about excessive crying?
There are some instances where what looks and sounds like a "witching hour" is really a sign of something more serious (such as an infection, acid reflux, or a food allergy). If baby shows any of these symptoms along with loud crying, call your doctor:
- Fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
- Trouble breathing
- Loose stools
- Difficulty feeding
- Drinking less milk or formula than usual
- Excessive sluggishness or sleepiness
- Abnormal-sounding cry
- Any symptoms of a food allergy
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