Witching hour is an old fashioned term describing unsettled babies who cry frequently in the late afternoon early evening.
In this article, I discuss why I don’t like this term because it normalises unsettled behaviour and can stop parents investigating why a baby might be crying excessively – more often than not, there is a reason, and it’s our job to find out why.
What is the baby witching hour?
The baby “witching hour” is a term that is commonly used to refer to a period of time in the evening when babies may become fussy, irritable, and difficult to soothe. While the exact time frame can vary from baby to baby, it is said to generally occur between the hours of 5 p.m. and 12 a.m.
During this time, babies may cry more frequently, refuse to eat, or have trouble sleeping.
Are “witching hours” normal?
It is important to note that while this period of unsettled behavior is a common occurrence in many families, it doesn’t mean “nothing is wrong” and you definitely should NOT write off every evening as a tortuous period that will pass in a few months.
Contrary to many articles on this topic, the witching hour shouldn’t be normalised and parents and caregivers can (and in many cases do) have lovely times with settled babies during the late afternoon and early evening – this isn’t something you have to struggle through.
Many articles on this topic will point to experts who believe that the witching hour may be related to a baby’s immature nervous system, but there’s no evidence that points to this.
The 3 most common causes of witching hour:
In my experience, the 3 most common causes of witching hour include:
- An overtired baby who hasn’t had an appropriate amount of day sleep
- An inadequately winded baby that is uncomfortable from trapped gas
- A caregiver who is trying to meet competing afternoon demands – prepping/cooking dinner, picking up other children from childcare or school or trying to get the house in some form of respectability (the fact that these responsibilities regularly fall on a breastfeeding mother is a confounding factor)
The cases I see of severe witching hours or ‘colicky babies’ regularly tick ALL these boxes. Age-appropriate day sleep & trapped wind are very commonly overlooked. Commonly too, the baby will have been awake for more than three hours (little babies can only tolerate small awake windows).
Another confounding factor (and one I don’t think we talk about enough) are the levels of primary carer postnatal depression and/or anxiety that are even more prevalent in the setting of a highly unsettled baby.
In my sleep programs I try to empower parents and caregivers to understand their baby more and start to recognise what might be driving unsettled behaviour in their baby.
What do I do if I’m facing witching hour every night?
If you are the parent or caregiver of a baby who experiences the witching hour, it can be helpful to try a variety of soothing techniques – I always talk about returning your baby to the womb to calm baby – things like: swaddling, rocking, patting and white noise.
BUT at 5pm with competing demands this is often impossible – this is where a baby-carrier (for the last sleep of the day) can become your best friend. In my little baby routines, the last nap of the day can be the hardest to achieve and the best for an assisted nap if your baby is struggling to fall asleep.
I’m a HUGE fan of the carrier as your baby is upright (if they are uncomfortable from trapped gas this will help), close to you so they will settle easily – and best of all – you have your hand free for any job you may need to get done in the afternoon!
A lot of articles on witching hour will tell you to take breaks and practice self-care, as caring for a fussy baby can be emotionally and physically draining. Easier said than done when you have to prepare dinner, do daycare or school pick ups and get everyone fed, bathed and in bed by 7pm!!
Protecting the breastfeeding mother/primary carer is core to my philosophy. As families and communities, we should be doing everything we can to do this – telling a mum to practice self care isn’t enough, doing things like daycare pickup in times of need, absolutely is.
Do you have a particularly fussy baby that cries more than normal?
This next passage has been taken directly from my very popular colic blog.
Yes, babies cry.
Yes, you will find that a healthy baby cries.
Yes, a baby’s crying is a form of communication.
But excessive crying, frequent feeding or cluster feeding nearly every feed cycle, unsettled behaviour, short sleeps – these are all caused by something and the key to eradicating this colic is to understand WHY.
There are myriad reasons why babies cry excessively,
- from wind to illness,
- hunger to eczema,
- and everything in between.
Fascinatingly, parental instinct as to the cause of unsettled behaviour correlates strongly with true causes.
The better you understand your baby’s cues, the better you will be at interpreting their needs and deciphering the messages within their cries.
If you have a particularly fussy baby that cries a lot – please read my colic blog “Colic in Babies, Symptoms, causes & treatment – for Colic relief tips.
Do formula fed babies have a witching hour?
This is one of the most googled questions when it comes to witching hour!
Yes, formula-fed babies can also experience a witching hour. The witching hour is not specific to breastfed babies and can occur in babies who are formula-fed as well.
As with breastfed babies, the witching hour in formula-fed babies may be related to a variety of factors, including overstimulation, digestive discomfort, growth spurts, and parental demands at the end of the day.
Formula-fed babies can experience fussiness and gas due to the type of formula they are consuming, as some formulas may be more difficult for babies to digest than others, bottled fed babies can also swallow air and baby spits up just as much as breastfed babies.
The difference between breastfed and bottle (not necessary formula) fed babies is the confidence parents have when it comes to intake when the exact volume is known i.e. I know you had 180 mL of milk 1 hour ago, so what is driving your discomfort is perhaps gas or you’re tired …. With breastfed babies we get less confident but the more we listen to our instincts and know what a good feed/empty breasts feel like the more confident we can be that a breastfed baby has had a good feed too.
How long does baby witching hour last?
In my experience, an unsettled baby can be unsettled at any time of day or night. The length and timing of the crying or unsettled behaviour has more to do with what is driving the discomfort, than a specific time – if you see my blog on colic this period of highly unsettled behavior most often becomes evident when a baby is 2–5 weeks old and usually eases for most babies / babies outgrow it by the time the baby is 3–4 months old.
With that said – google anywhere else and you’ll find witching hour typically lasts for a few hours about the same time every night in the early evening hours. The witching hour usually starts around 5 pm and can last until midnight or later, although the exact timing can vary and can carry on for weeks or months – not particularly helpful for parents trying to discover what is driving the unsettled behaviour.
If you are concerned about your baby’s behavior or health during the witching hour, or if the fussiness persists throughout the day and night, it’s important to talk to your baby’s pediatrician to rule out any underlying medical issues.