Science of baby sleep
Witching hour 101￼
By Cradlewise Staff
Science of baby sleep
Witching hour 101￼
By Cradlewise Staff
For those not well-versed in the lingo of new parenthood yet, “witching hour” might sound like a fun Halloween tradition or a scary movie marathon. But the reality might be even scarier 👻.
“Witching hour” is often used in parenting circles to refer to a late-afternoon-to-evening period of peak fussiness for babies. This fussiness tends to coincide with a busy time of day for many families, with older kids home from school, mealtime, and the baby all competing for attention, right when parents are typically feeling tired and frazzled after a long day.
While witching hour can be a frustrating and exhausting experience for many parents, understanding what it is, why and how it happens, and what you can do about it can help you manage the worst of witching hour chaos.
What is the witching hour for babies?
According to Dr. Rebekah Diamond, MD, pediatrician and author of Parent Like a Pediatrician, “When people talk about a ‘witching hour,’ they usually are referring to a period during the day where babies are especially fussy and difficult to console. This tends to be in the evening.”
You already know that babies cry (sometimes a lot!). But more often than not, babies are crying to communicate their needs — whether they’re hungry, need soothing, or are uncomfortable because of a soiled diaper.
That said, babies can become extremely fussy and inconsolable during the “witching hour.” This period of fussiness can start in the late afternoon and can extend all the way through the evening meal to bedtime.
During this time, your little one may cry, fuss, and refuse to sleep, despite your best efforts. It can be a frustrating and exhausting experience for parents, particularly if you don’t know what’s causing it.
When does the witching hour start and end?
In his book Beyond the Checkup from Birth to Age Four: A Pediatrician’s Guide to Calm, Confident Parenting, Dr. Luke Voytas—a practicing pediatrician (and father of two young kids), writes, “Most babies start to cry more after two weeks, and not just when they are hungry or need to be changed. You’ve already handled that. but you might find that your baby also has a time during the late evening (7 pm to 11 pm or so — the “witching hour”) where she’s just kind of off.”
The exact timing for witching hour can vary from baby to baby (and from day to day), but it typically starts around 5 pm and can last for several hours, often ending at 11 pm or midnight. It’s not unusual for it to begin earlier or later, depending on your baby’s age, temperament, and feeding schedule.
For many families, the witching hour coincides with partners coming home from work, older children needing help with homework or evening activities, cooking and eating dinner, and trying to wind down for the day, … all while your baby is crying. No wonder so many parents dread it!
Why do babies have a witching hour?
There are several theories about why the witching hour occurs, including exhaustion from a full day of stimulation, hunger, overstimulation, and a natural increase in colic during this time.
Some experts believe it’s related to newborn babies’ developing nervous systems and the fact that they’re still learning how to self-soothe.
Others believe it’s related to the cluster feeding that often occurs in the evening when babies are trying to fill up before a long stretch of sleep.
Another theory is that the witching hour is related to a baby’s circadian rhythm. As adults, our circadian rhythm helps us regulate our sleep and wake cycles, but this system is still developing in younger babies. As a result, they may become overtired and overstimulated in the evening, leading to fussiness and crying.
According to Dr. Diamond, “The most compelling theories are based on the fact that babies’ sleep cycles have been reversed in utero, so they have a day-night reversal and difficulty transitioning to typical sleep schedules. Other theories point to GI distress like gassiness.”
When do babies outgrow the witching hour?
Even though the witching hour might frustrate you, the good news is that it’s not permanent!
For most babies, crying during the witching hour usually peaks around six weeks of age, and they start to outgrow it around three to four months old, but some may experience it until they are six months old.
According to Dr. Diamond, the time and age of when babies outgrow witching hour varies from baby to baby, but colic peaks from three weeks to three months.
It’s important to note that all babies are different, and some may never even experience a witching hour.
After the first few months, most babies become more settled and can better regulate their emotions and sleep patterns.
However, it’s important to remember that babies go through different stages of development and may experience periods of increased fussiness or difficulty sleeping at different times.
Colic vs. witching hour
While both colic and the witching hour are used to describe fussy periods in infants, they are quite different from each other.
According to Dr. Voytas, “Some babies, though, maybe one in five, will cry a lot more and a lot harder. This may be colic.”
If your baby cries excessively for at least three hours a day, three days a week, for over three weeks, it’s more likely to be colic. Colic also tends to resolve on its own by the time your baby is two to three months old.
Colic in babies is attributed to various causes like infant reflux, food allergies, feeding patterns (like overfeeding, underfeeding, or infrequent burping), and poor baby gut health, among other things.
On the other hand, the witching hour is used to describe a fussy period that usually occurs in the late afternoon or early evening, lasting for a few hours. Unlike colic, the witching hour is not considered a medical condition. During this time, babies may be fussy, crying, and generally difficult to soothe.
Dr. Diamond suggests that if you are struggling or have concerns, definitely talk to your pediatrician. “They’ll help diagnose and review some tips for colic such as keeping rooms quiet, lights dim, and staying as calm as the situation allows.”
Tips to get baby to sleep during the witching hour
- Swaddle: Swaddling can make your little one feel secure and calm and help them sleep better. Swaddle your baby correctly to prevent overheating and ensure their safety.
- White noise: White, pink, or brown noise, along with other calming sounds, such as nature sounds or lullabies, can help soothe your baby and promote sleep.
Cradlewise comes with a built-in sound machine with various pink, white, and brown noise sleep tracks. You can also layer these tracks with a soothing heartbeat, waves, and light rain sounds.
- Try a change of environment: Sometimes, babies can get overstimulated by their environment. Try to take them out outdoors in a calm place, like a park, for a while. A change of scenery can help calm a fussy baby.
- Prioritize those naps: We know that sleep begets sleep. Sometimes parents think that if their baby skips their naps, they’ll fall asleep quickly at night. In reality, this has the opposite effect. It’s harder for overtired babies to fall asleep at night. When your baby takes their naps, it makes it easier for them to fall asleep during the witching hour.
- Nighttime routine: A consistent nighttime routine can strengthen your baby’s cues for sleep. A routine could include a short stroll outdoors in the evening, a bath, massage, soothing music, and dim light, which can all calm them down and prepare their mind and body for a good night’s sleep.
- Cut back on the lights and noise: As we said, babies get overstimulated easily. The bright lights in your home, the noise from your TV, the kitchen, all these sounds can easily trigger fussing and crying during the witching hour. Keep calm, and keep your environment as relaxed as possible and your baby will (eventually) pick up on your cues and settle into the family’s evening routine.
Above all, remember that the witching hour is a temporary phase, and most babies grow out of it eventually. According to Dr. Diamond, “A fussy baby is stressful, and it’s important to acknowledge how challenging and exhausting that is. But it’s not dangerous for your baby. If babies are allowed to sleep when tired and generally supported with opportunities to sleep, they will auto-regulate and get more sleep.”