Should you be afraid of the witching hour?

Oct 3, 2022
7 min read

If you’ve got a young baby then chances are, you’ve heard of the witching hour. You’ve probably even experienced it firsthand…

5pm rolls around and your little one suddenly becomes inconsolable . No matter what you try, you can’t seem to placate them. You’re left wondering what on earth is going on with your baby?! 

Sound familiar? If so then read on to better understand why your little one is unsettled at this time and what you can do to help them.

In this article:

  • What is the ‘witching hour’?
  • How long does it last?
  • Why do babies have a witching hour?
  • When do babies outgrow the witching hour?
  • How to avoid the witching hour
  • How to soothe your baby during the witching hour

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What is the witching hour?

Never mind Cinderella at midnight, when my son was little I used to dread the clock hitting 5pm as THAT was the time when chaos would descend on our house. 

The witching hour is a period of time in the early evening when your baby, who is usually quite happy and content, becomes extremely fussy and impossible to soothe.

In many households, the early evening tends to be the busiest time of day. You’re trying to get dinner ready and do bathtime, if you have older children you may be trying to navigate homework and multiple bedtime routines

And having a screaming infant during this already hectic part of the day, just makes it all that more stressful!

During the witching hour, you and your baby may experience the following:

  • Increased fussiness
  • Increased crying
  • Unable to settle to sleep
  • Short catnaps
  • Clinginess
  • Fussy feeding
  • Cluster feeding
  • Unable to soothe and calm your baby

How long does the witching hour last?

For some babies, this fussy period only lasts for a short time but for others it can go on and on…and on. A baby's witching hours usually occur in the early evening from around 5pm and can last until as late as 11pm. Ouch!

Why do babies have a witching hour?

So at this point you might be wondering whether all babies have a witching hour. And the answer is no, not necessarily! Although it is very common during the newborn stage, the witching hour usually has a specific cause and if you're able to address that cause, there's no reason why your baby shouldn't be calm and settled in the evenings.

The two main causes of the witching hour are over and under tiredness. I know what you’re thinking… how can two polar opposite things create the same problem? Let’s find out…

Over tiredness

The most common cause of the witching hour is OVER tiredness. Young babies are very susceptible to over tiredness as their awake windows are shorter and they can easily become overstimulated. 

Think about your little one’s day and see if any of this rings a bell:

  • Long awake windows between naps
  • Difficulty settling for naps
  • Short naps of 45 minutes or less
  • Disrupted naps, perhaps needing to be resettled multiple times
  • Not showing obvious ‘tired cues’

If your baby is not having good quality naps during the day, or is having too much awake time between their naps, then it’s likely that they are getting overtired by early evening, which is causing their witching hour. 

When babies get overtired, there is a build up of the stress hormone cortisol in their body, which acts like adrenaline or caffeine. This keeps them going and going even though they are beyond tired, making them appear wired and unsettled.

Under tiredness

I know, I know, it’s crazy to think that your little one’s good daytime sleep could be causing the witching hour too… but it is possible! If your baby has had too much sleep in the day, then by the early evening they are going to be wide awake and ready to party!

So how do you know if your baby is undertired? Again, think of your baby’s day… does any of this sound familiar?

  • Multiple long naps throughout the day, perhaps 2-3 hours each
  • Very short awake times in between naps
  • Only really waking to feed during the day
  • Waking frequently overnight
  • Feeding frequently overnight
  • Long awake periods overnight

A baby who is undertired is going to be very difficult to get to sleep at bedtime simply because they aren’t tired enough. And what happens when you try to settle a baby who doesn’t want to be settled? They’ll be fussy and grumpy - just like an overtired baby!

It can sometimes be hard to tell under and over tiredness apart, so if you’re not sure which one might be causing your baby’s witching hour, you can read more HERE

If your baby is sleeping away the day and staying awake through the night, it may also be that they have their days and nights confused. You can find out how to swap this around HERE.

Trapped wind

Another really common cause of the witching hour in young babies is trapped wind.

Every time your baby feeds, they take in air and if they aren’t well-winded after their feeds, this trapped air can build up throughout the day. By the early evening, that trapped wind can be very uncomfortable for your baby, causing them to squirm and writhe and just generally be unhappy. 

If your wee one is prone to trapped wind, you want to make sure you’re winding them really well throughout the day. Try winding them halfway through their feed, as well as at the end. Try to get  a couple of really good burps up each time. Tummy time is also great for getting out excess wind.

Reflux

Babies who have reflux can also suffer during the witching hour. If your little one is feeding frequently or cluster feeding in the early evening and really unsettled, this could be due to reflux. Reflux is when stomach acid and milk come back up the oesophagus, the acid causes pain as it burns the oesophagus and throat, not nice for your little one. You can find out more about reflux HERE

When do babies outgrow the witching hour?

The witching hour can start as early as 2-3 weeks old but usually peaks around 6-8 weeks old, right when that newborn sleepiness starts to wear off. By 3 months of age, you should find that the fussiness of the witching hour starts to subside and your evenings become easier to manage. 

If your baby is over 3 months old and your evenings are still an exhausting battle every night, chances are that your baby’s day sleep needs a bit of tweaking. 

How to avoid the witching hour

The best way you can help your baby to avoid the witching hour is by making sure they are on an age-appropriate nap schedule that meets their sleep, feeding and awake time needs. 

In the first three months, your newborn’s sleep needs change quite rapidly and it can be difficult to keep up! What worked for your baby at 3 weeks old will be quickly outgrown two weeks later, and by 3 months of age their routine will look massively different. 

Luckily, we’ve taken the guesswork out for you! Our Little Ones App has evolving, age-appropriate, daily sleep schedules that help to ensure your baby is getting the perfect balance of awake time and sleep during the day, in order to settle and sleep well at night.

How to calm your baby

Unfortunately I don’t own a magic wand to abracadabra the witching hour away! However, I do have some tried and tested suggestions to make those difficult hours a little easier for you all…

Fresh air

Get out of the house. It doesn’t matter where, it could be a walk around your garden or around the block. Anything to get you both out in the fresh air. A crying baby always feels less intense in an open space compared to being inside. 

The change of scenery or the motion of the pram can also soothe your little one and give you both a breather. Fresh air has also been shown to help babies and toddlers sleep better at night!

White noise

We love white noise! Not only is it great for helping your little one get to sleep and stay asleep, it can be invaluable in those moments when you’ve tried everything and nothing is working to soothe your baby. 

White noise mimics the sounds that your baby would have heard in the womb which is why they find it super comforting. The trick is to make sure it is playing louder than your baby’s cries so they can actually hear it. We have an amazing collection of white noise tracks available HERE.

Baby massage

Slowing things down, making the lighting softer and decreasing stimulation can really help your baby to wind down and get ready for sleep. Young babies love the feeling of skin to skin so try using this time to do a bit of baby massage. Put some quiet music on and use long, gentle strokes across their body to help slow their heart rate down, and yours! 

Bath time

If your baby loves their bath time, consider bringing it earlier in the evening when they start to get unsettled. Some lavender baby bubbles and warm water can help them to relax.

If your baby isn’t a fan of the bath, don’t write it off completely. You may want to try getting in the bath with them, as your presence and skin-to-skin contact will help to reassure them.

Skin-to-skin

As I’ve mentioned, your baby loves your skin! You are their home and safety so try stripping them down to their diaper, popping your top off  and laying with them on your chest while you pat their bottom rhythmically

The sound of your heartbeat and the feel of your skin may be all that’s needed to calm your upset baby. If you have a baby who likes to cluster feed in the evening, skin-to-skin can help boost your milk supply too.

Carrier/sling

This was my saviour when my little girl was fussy in the early evening. I’d be busy trying to make dinner, entertain my older child and look after her… all at the same time! Popping her in the sling meant she was happy and I still had two hands free to get on with everything else that needed to be done. She loved being close to me and snug inside the sling and, as a bonus, the motion of walking around also often sent her off to sleep!

Support

Lastly, and most importantly, ask for help. The witching hour is tough and having a network of family or friends who can support you is crucial for your wellbeing. If you know early evenings are difficult then ask a friend or family member to pop round at that time to take the baby for a walk or bathe them, so you can have a bit of a break. 

There is no shame in asking for help. Remember, it takes a village to raise a baby. 

And if you don’t have a village to support you, remember you can always reach out to us in our Village within the Little Ones App. Our Village is a place where thousands of mothers from all over the world are helping one another, supporting one another, all day, every day, through everything. Our certified sleep consultants are also available day and night to guide and support you. 

Remember, the witching hour doesn’t last forever. By 3 months, most babies will have outgrown this tricky phase and your evenings should become easier again. If you’d like to get your little one into a great routine and reclaim your evenings, take a look at the comprehensive Sleep Programs in our Little Ones App.

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Bibliography

WebMD (2017, February 6). What Is Cortisol? https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol 

‌Yates, J. (2018). PERSPECTIVE: The Long-Term Effects of Light Exposure on Establishment of Newborn Circadian Rhythm. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 14(10), 1829–1830. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.7426

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