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What can I do in the witching hour when my baby is very unsettled?

Small babies tend to cry a lot, especially in the first three months of life when they are still adjusting to extra-uterine life. For the majority, there is a big shift in the way they behave after this ‘fourth trimester’. Babies then tend to become more predictable with their feeding and settling, more interactive and connected with their parents and generally cry less often and for shorter periods of time.

By three months onwards, the early days of getting to know each other have passed and there’s more of a familiarity to the daily routine.

Getting through this first couple of months can be challenging for new parents. It can also be very distressing to see their young baby crying, especially when they don’t calm despite trying a range of settling strategies. Well-meaning friends and family are often generous in their suggestions around what can help. But sometimes all the usual settling strategies don’t work, which only adds to the frustration parents can feel.

What is the witching hour?

The witching hour, or hours, is the block of time, usually in the late afternoon and evening, when young babies tend to cry more. It often starts at around 4 pm and extends through until 8 – 10 pm. Some babies escalate more in their crying overnight, or even around noon. But generally, young babies like to reserve their best crying for late in the day, when parents have lots to do and are feeling pretty tired themselves.

What young babies love

Small babies are driven to behave by their survival needs. They don’t have the capacity for empathy and giving their exhausted parents a break, no matter how much it is needed. And although every baby is a unique and special individual, there are some calming techniques which tend to work for many.

  • Wrapping/ swaddling in a muslin or cotton wrap. Enclose your baby’s arms so their startle reflex is contained.
  • Rocking, swaying and cuddling. Hold your baby close to your own body and repeatedly bend your knees so they feel these up and down movements in your arms.
  • Patting – try patting your baby’s back or bottom. Aim to do this at the same rate as your heart rate and say “shsh” to synchronise with each time your hand comes down to pat. Pat gently, the key is to be reassuring.
  • Listening to singing and music. Have some background music playing when they’re crying, it may help you to focus on something else as well.

Look at the basics first

Is your baby well fed, warm, comfortable and have all their needs been met? Small variations can make a big difference. A change of position in your arms or in their cot, a clean nappy, extra feed or being dressed in a different way can all be overlooked in the fog of parental exhaustion.

Does your baby just need you close? Using a sling, pushing your baby in their pram and going for a walk, or just sitting and holding them may be all that they need. Young babies are biologically driven to feel physically close to their parents. It takes hours to build strong emotional connection with each other. This often happens in the quiet, ‘sit still, hold and look at me’ moments.

Is your baby simply tired? Overtired babies often behave as if they are hungry. Searching for a nipple (or teat), not calming and crying loudly can all be signs of tiredness. Missing early tired signs often leads to babies becoming overtired and more resistant to settling.

Try offering your baby a feed, holding them until they’re calm, but not fully asleep and then place them into their cot. Even if they protest, try patting gently, shshing and reassuring them until they calm. Tired babies tend to cry more loudly just before they settle and calm. Give your baby a brief cuddle if they’re crying, but when they calm, place them back into their cot.

Does your baby want to suck for comfort? Some babies just love to suck, not always for nutrition but purely for the joy of sucking. Try offering your baby a dummy. Ideally, after the early weeks of feeding so there won’t be any interruption to your baby’s feeding patterns.

Ask yourself, “Am I okay”? It is true that babies tend to ‘pick up’ on their parent’s emotions. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious and/or depressed, this will be a particularly difficult time for you. Ask your partner, friends and family for support. There is so much help available for new parents, but it starts with reaching out.

5 practical tips to deal with the witching hour

  1. Plan for the time when you’re not going to be able to do much other than care for your baby. If possible, quarantine this block of time. It pays to be organised.
  2. Negotiate with your partner around who’s cooking dinner. Ideally, do this early and try not to leave the decision until late in the day. Pull out your slow cooker and rediscover its benefits. Cook large amounts of food once and freeze what’s leftover. Aim for nutritious and quick meals, not what’s complex.
  3. Look after your own needs early in the day when your baby is settled. Shower, wash your hair if you need to and get changed. You may not get around to any of these self-care strategies for hours if you don’t take the opportunity when you can.
  4. Save bathing your baby until when they’re unsettled. A deep, warm bath and tummy massage can be very soothing. Set up the bath area and have their clothes and toiletries already organised.
  5. Know when you need a break. Learn how to recognise when it’s time to pass your baby over to your partner or another kind adult and have 5 minutes to yourself. We all have our own individual limits and it’s helpful to recognise when it’s time to walk away. Make sure your baby is in a safe place and you’ve tried everything you can think of to soothe them.

Sometimes the safest place for a baby to be is in their cot, on their own for a short period of time.

One more thing

Speak with your Child Health Nurse to see if your baby is growing as they need to. Ask to see their percentile (growth charts) which will give you reassurance that they’re thriving. Hungry babies don’t settle easily and sometimes extra feeds are needed.

Written for Multi-Mam by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse, May 2022.