Q&A: “the witching hour” with a newborn

Lauren writes:

"I have a 3 week old who just started getting fussy in the evenings. Any tips on how to console him?   Sometimes the pacifier works, he alsoneeds to be held at all times when he is fussy. When he falls asleep
in my arms (probably from exhaustion from complaining and whining) he
wakes up as soon as I move him to his bed. HELP!!!!"

Ah, the classic problem of the Witching Hour. When we took a Newborn Care class before having our first son the instructor spent 20 minutes of the 3-hour class covering this topic. Starting at a few weeks old, many many newborns start to fuss at around 7 pm (although it can start as early as 4 pm) and fuss until around 10 or 11 pm. It goes on for weeks. This is apparently a worldwide phenomenon, so you can console yourself that there are parents all over the world going just as crazy as you are with fussy newborns in the evening.

No one knows for sure why this happens, although there are a million theories. Some people think it’s the babies’ bodies working out some kinks. Some think it’s adjusting to all the stimuli they get out of the womb that they didn’t get in the womb. Some think it’s digestive difficulties. (Some people think the babies have gas and that makes them cry, while others think the babies cry and swallow air and that gives them gas.) My mom thinks the babies just figure out they’re no longer in the womb and get pissed off. I think it’s because they’ve figured out that everyone else can move and they can’t even roll over and they get pissed off. Honestly, it’s probably a mixture of a bunch of things, very few of which we have any control over.

It’s very hard to deal emotionally with this stage, since you’re so new to it and it’s heartbreaking and frustrating to have your baby be so upset. It can be a great first opportunity for you and your baby to become closer, though, if you let it, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for parents to start to come into their own power.

The important concepts to remember are that when you try to comfort your baby, your baby learns that someone cares about his/her distress and is coming to help. That’s the second step (after feeding) in learning to trust the parent and the world in general. It doesn’t actually matter if you can fix the problem for the baby, just that you’re there soothing and being with the baby. For parents, it’s the first of many times you get to discover that there are problems that don’t have solutions, and that walking through the challenge is what turns you into a parent, even if you can’t "solve" it.

Now for actually dealing with the fussiness: There are as many things to try as there are parents and kids. Everyone you know will swear by something different, and that’s because different things help different kids. My feeling about dealing with the Witching Hour is that you should use the same Malcolm X Method you do with sleep in general for the first few months: By Any Means Necessary.

[Updated to add: If you’re nursing, you should always try nursing first. It’s the simplest solution, if it works. Some babies cluster-feed in the evening, which means they nurse on and off for a few hours, but then will often sleep a little longer at night. You can just sit around and nurse and watch TV in the evening and hope to get a few extra hours of sleep at night.]

Here are some things that are commonly recommended:

  • Putting the baby in the infant seat on top of a running clothes dryer. The shimmying and noise of the machine are supposed to soothe the baby.
  • Running the vacuum cleaner near the baby. The loud white noise sometimes helps.
  • Taking the baby into a silent, dark room and walking or rocking slowly, to remove as much external stimulus as possible.
  • Taking the baby into a bright room with lots of background noise, to add as much background stimulus as possible.
  • Putting on loud music. My friends’ daughter would only calm down to "Livin’ La Vida Loca" at top volume. They listened to it for 3 hours a day every day for 4 weeks. They don’t even like Ricky Martin.
  • Driving the baby around in the car.
  • Strolling the baby outside. This seems to be especially effective in cold weather, for some reason.
  • Bouncy seats or swings, although some kids who like them at other times of day hate them in the evening.
  • Walking the baby around in a sling, wrap, bjorn, mei tai, or any other body-carrying device. (We had to put our first son facing out in the Bjorn and bounce slwoly around the apartment for 4 hours every day while the evening mishegas period was in effect. My calf muscles got huge.)
  • Chamomilla or other homeopathic treatments, or Mylecon drops.
  • Figuring out when the crying starts, and trying to put the baby down for a nap (nursing or rocking, if that’s the sure-fire way to get them down) 15-30 minutes before the crying usually starts. If you luck out the baby might sleep though part or all of the cranky time.

I’m sure there are dozens of common suggestions I’ve forgotten. You can Google "colic" to see other things people have come up with. I don’t think normal evening fussiness is actual colic, since colic is technically 4 hours a day of inconsolable crying for at least 4 weeks, but since no one really knows what any of it is, you might as well try anything you can find.

Unfortunately*, laudanum (opium tincture) is not approved for use in infants. So you’ll just have to try a bunch of things and see what works best to help soothe your baby. If you have a partner to trade off some of the crying shift with it will help. You might also be able to sucker a friend or relative into coming and babysitting for an hour or two sometimes during that phase. (If you have a friend with a teenager who comes to babysit, this would be a perfect way to scare said teenager into being assiduous about practicing safe sex. It’s a win-win, really.)

There are four pieces of good news about this situation:
1. It’s not you. You’re doing a great job.
2. It will end. Really, it will. Maybe in 2 weeks, maybe not for 6 weeks, but it will end.
3. This is one time when people’s ridiculous advice might actually help you. As long as it’s not physically dangerous, you might as well try it.
4. Going through this phase with your baby will tell you so much about your baby’s personality and likes and dislikes. Does your baby escalate by crying, or release tension? Does your baby like dark and quiet, or loud and busy? Does your baby like to swing or to bounce**? Does Rage Against the Machine soothe her, or Enya? Adversity helps you know your baby better.

So now, readers, release the hounds! We need your stories of tricks that helped soothe your baby during this phase. We also need stories of how horribly your baby would cry (for us it was 4-9 every afternoon), what you thought was wrong (I thought my older son had an undiagnosed intestinal disorder), and how long the crying phase lasted (memory is merciful, but I think about 4-5 weeks). Even if none of your suggestions help Lauren, at least she’ll know it’s not just her.

* I’m kidding. Opiates should never be used on infants. They should be reserved for cranky, non-sleeping toddlers instead.

** My older son hated the swing and bouncy seat like they were red-hot lasers poking him. When my MIL said "Some kids are bouncers and some are swingers," we realized that he hated them because he didn’t like to swing, but needed to bounce. It was so petty, but a huge key to being able to soothe him (by bouncing him for hours at a time). Some dumb little insight like that may be the beginning of being able to soothe your baby, too.

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