How to Survive Your Baby’s Afternoon “Witching” Hour

Is 4 p.m. the worst time of the day for your infant, leaving you wondering how to survive your baby’s afternoon “witching” hour? Determine why they are so fussy and what you may do to help them relax during this challenging period.

Emma Stone was a calm infant for approximately 22 hours per day. “But in the late afternoons, it was as if she was possessed by devils; I could not stop her from crying,” her mother Suzanne of Exeter, New Hampshire, explains. Sometimes it was so severe that when my husband got home from work, Emma and I would be sobbing uncontrollably.

No current scientific study demonstrates that babies are more irritable between 4 and 6 p.m. Yet parents and clinicians use vivid language to characterize this time, such as “the witching hours,” “the arsenic hours,” or, in Emma’s case, “sundowners,” because she became agitated shortly after sunset.

Parental advisor Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the sleep disorders clinic at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, states, “I hear about it regularly.” That is a challenging period for virtually every family. Learn more about why your baby may be fussier in the late afternoon and how to handle the situation.

The Crying Game

Why are these hours so difficult for infants, particularly in the first three months? Physician and producer Harvey Karp, M.D. says, “just like everyone else, babies become exhausted at the end of the day.” Also, this is the time of day when your youngster has the least ability to rest. According to research, a baby’s body temperature typically peaks in the late afternoon, resulting in maximum alertness. So, your child is fatigued but unable to relax.

The undeveloped neural system of your infant does not help matters either. Dr. Norbert Herschkowitz, coauthor of A Good Start in Life: Understanding Your Child’s Brain and Behavior, argues that in the first three months of a child’s existence, her brain is unable to adjust her behavior, such as making a swift shift from a fussy state to a calmer one. Lastly, your newborn’s body creates a negligible amount of melatonin, the chemical that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle. This suggests that she cannot readily differentiate between day and night and cannot sleep for more than a few hours. By the end of the day, your infant will likely be exhausted.

Changes to Come

Around the age of four months, your infant’s tendency for sunset tantrums drops significantly. His body begins to create more melatonin, and his brain develops to the point where he is able to shift his focus from one subject to another readily. Dr. Herschkowitz explains that this implies infants are better able to occupy themselves and recover from difficult phases more quickly.

But while the period between 4 and 6 months is typically characterized by relative peace, don’t get too comfortable just yet: At 6 or 7 months, your baby may face new developmental obstacles that may once again bring him afternoon distress. “At this age, babies are really inquisitive,” Dr. Karp explains. “Since they are so ecstatic about all the new things they can do, they frequently resist sleep and become overtired and irritable.”

Even if your infant breezes through this stage, the ten-month mark, when he is starting to move around by crawling or balancing on two legs, can be challenging. Why? Because active babies tire easily. Dr. Karp notes, “going from here to there from sunrise to night is taxing.” This contributes to their irritability in the late afternoons when their bodies are tired, but their desire to explore is still strong.

Simple Comforts

These approaches can help your infant be less stressed and less likely to cry.

  • Try swaddling. Until approximately 4 months of age, newborns are frequently easier to settle when wrapped in a blanket. Because it simulates the feeling of being encased in the womb. And when your baby’s motions are constrained, she is less likely to flail and accidentally hurt herself, which can lead to a prolonged crying spell.
  • Modify your timetable. If your infant is routinely cranky by 4 p.m., adjust his nap schedule so that he awakens later in the afternoon or add a late-afternoon nap. Your infant may also be cranky due to hunger. Try nursing him just prior to your own meal. Alternatively, if he is mature enough to eat solids, provide him with a tiny snack.
  • Get him in the zone. Movement and white noise have a calming effect on an infant’s frazzled nerves. Assist her in relaxing by playing a classical music cassette, placing her in a baby swing, positioning her baby seat next to a running dryer, vacuuming the carpet around her crib or play yard, or taking her for a car ride.
  • Exit the residence. Your hands may perspire at the thought of heading out in public with a fussy infant, but fresh sights and sounds, together with the soothing motion of traveling in a stroller or front carrier, may help distract your infant from his sour mood. And it may be exactly what you need to improve your mood.

Meaningful articles you might like: How to Know if Your Baby is Just Fussy or a High Needs Baby, 7 New Mom Concerns and How to Manage Them, Fun Mom’s Guide to Positive Discipline