Jessica Riley, mother of six-month-old fussy baby Ross, admits it can be frustrating to get through what many parents refer to as the witching hours. “Sometimes nothing calms him down, except when he’s on me the whole time. And even that doesn’t always help.” Ross is Riley’s third baby, so she’s had plenty of experience trying to avoid the nightly fussy period. At times, she realizes, it’s simply beyond her control. “We cope — chocolate and a glass of wine helps!”
Nearly every parent has been there. At the end of the day, the baby starts fussing for no apparent reason. Toronto child psychologist Robyn Irving, a mother of two, understands it both personally and professionally. “A lot of things add up: overstimulation, tiredness, hunger,” she says. The most important thing, according to Irving, is that moms or dads — who are tired themselves — don’t lose their cool. “Babies learn from experience,” she says. “When we’re able to calm ourselves, we teach them we will be there for them.”
But Ronald Barr, a professor of paediatrics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and an expert in infant crying, says we shouldn’t assume that baby fatigue is the main culprit. His research has shown that the witching hours are a normal developmental milestone.
“During the first three to five months of life, inconsolable crying bouts are part of the overall crying babies do,” he explains. This is sometimes referred to as the “crying curve” and peaks around two months, tapering off by the time the baby is six months old. “The level and intensity of crying is different for every baby, but it is very common,” says Barr.
For some infants, cluster crying around 5 p.m., for example, is part of this behaviour, he says. “We don’t know why, but we’ve surmised it has to do with diurnal rhythms.” Biological and behavioural factors, such as sleep cycles, cortisol levels and stress rhythms, can all contribute.
According to Barr, 94 percent of babies outgrow inconsolable crying by the time they’re five months old. The bad news is that a small percentage will continue to have fussy temperaments. And the exact hour (or hours) isn’t set in stone. While most parents report witching hours in the late afternoon and early evening, it can shift. “Infant sleep-wake cycles are a mess in the first few months of life,” says Barr.
What can you do get through it? Put your fussy baby in a stroller or carrier and go for a walk, or head out for a drive. Babies often respond to change of smell, so pass them from one caregiver to another, if possible. White noise can work, as can sucking — either on the breast, bottle or pacifier. “Some techniques will work some of the time, but nothing works all of the time,” says Barr.
In studies Barr and his colleagues conducted, parents who routinely carried their babies the most reported 50 percent less crying overall. The findings suggest that babywearing might prevent the witching-hour meltdowns in the first place. “Carrying when babies were quiet helped to keep them quiet,” says Barr.
Of course, it isn’t realistic to carry your fussy baby all day. Sometimes the best coping method is to simply remind yourself that this period — even if it feels prolonged — is normal, and will end. Courtney Lundy, a Calgary mother to five-and-a-half-month-old Brynne, found support online in mommy chat rooms. “It’s comforting knowing someone else has been through it. Nothing lasts more than a few weeks, even though it feels endless when you are in the middle of it.”
A version of this article appeared in our April 2013 issue with the headline "The witching hours," pp. 64.