There’s a reason why they call that time in the late afternoon to early evening the witching hour – when your baby goes into meltdown for no apparent reason, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s possessed! Overstimulation, hunger and tiredness can lead to a world of misery for both of you.
“When we’re overtired, our bodies help us stay awake by releasing cortisol and adrenalin,” says Megan Faure, author of Baby Sense, who specialises in caring for babies with fussiness and sleep problems. “So instead of being able to sit quietly, little ones will get into a frenzy of activity, restlessness and neediness that manifests itself in the witching hour.” If you’re struggling, here are the magic solutions…
Put your grouchy baby in a sling or his pram and take a walk. “Not only is the fresh air good for you, but simply getting out of that stressful space will instantly lift you both,” says Megan. “It also helps fill that strange time of the day when you don’t know what to do with him.”
Don’t rush in
You’ve just settled your baby and sat down for tea when he starts his witching hour cries. Your initial reaction is to go back to him. But resist the temptation if you can. “It won’t psychologically damage your child if you leave him to have a good shout,” says childcare expert Rachel Waddilove.
“If you know he’s fed, winded and comfortable, it’s worth waiting 15 minutes. If he doesn’t stop, go back in, pick him up and see if he’s got any wind. Then put him back down again and go back to your tea. The more you carry him round, the more tired he’ll get. He won’t feed as well at the next feed, which will make him less likely to settle again.”
Keep an eye on the time
“There’s a limit to how long a baby can be awake and happy,” says Megan Faure. “If you push that limit, you’ll end up with a fractious child.” The time limit changes as little ones get older – for a new baby, it’s 45 minutes to an hour. So if you’re putting your newborn down at 7pm, he should have had an hour’s sleep before that, at around 5pm.
For a toddler, it changes to around three to five hours. “It’s counter-productive to keep your children awake the whole day,” says Megan. “Adrenalin will kick in and they’ll find it even harder to unwind and sleep.”
Regular massage on your newborn can smooth some of those cranky kinks out. “Massage helps develop your baby’s nervous system, so he can cope better with the stimulation he receives during the day and avoid feeling overwhelmed at the end of it,” explains baby massage expert Gayle Berry.
“It also releases feel-good hormones which lower the build-up of stress hormones.” You can’t do this once he’s grisly though. Pick a time earlier on, when he’s happy and alert.
Have a bath
You know how good you feel after a long soak? The same goes for over-stressed babies. “If your little one is having a meltdown, or you can sense one coming on, it’s worth getting him in the bath earlier than usual,” says Rachel Waddilove. Carry on the calming theme after the bath with quiet play or a story.
Keep on feeding
“It’s typical for newborns to want to feed little and often, particularly in the evening,” explains health visitor and sleep consultant Kate Daymond. “In the early weeks, if he’s not settling, it’s fine to carry on feeding him if he appears hungry, as long as he’s not vomiting it up.” You get some much-needed sofa time and it’s relaxing for your baby, too.
Everyone wants to come and look at your gorgeous new baby, but you have to be strict if you want to keep his crankiness to a minimum. “Other people bring a lot of sensory information that add to his sensory overload,” explains Megan Faure. “Not having visitors past 5pm will keep the two hours before she goes to bed as calm as possible.”
Making sure your little one is getting enough rest is even harder when he’s dropping one of his daily sleeps (eg going from two a day to one a day).
“The key is to be flexible,” says Kate Daymond. “Let him sleep when he needs it – 15 extra minutes during his lunchtime nap, or moving his bedtime forward if he’s really tired. It’s a balancing act, between too little and too much. If you get it right more than four days a week, you’re doing well!”
Create a special space
Taking your baby away from the stresses of witching hour can help. When he gets niggly, try putting him in his bouncer in a quiet corner, with maybe just a teddy to hold rather than lots of noisy, over-stimulating toys. Megan advises: “Try to leave him to have some down time. This works well especially in busy households. It’s somewhere just for him.”
“Bathtime is calming”
“3pm onwards is wind-down time for Ryan. He has his bottle, followed by a nap. Then it’s tea and bath, which instantly calms him. I get him ready for bed and let him have a swing in his chair while I make tea. Then it’s a feed and bed. It’s just a prolonged bedtime routine, but it works a treat.”
Ami Faber, 31, from Dorset, mum to Sophie, 8, and Ryan, 6 months
“I used a Bottle”
“From about 2 months old, Abigail would fall asleep during her 7pm breastfeed. I’d put her in her cot, but she’d wake up and refuse to settle, and feeding her again didn’t make any difference. One night, I gave her a bottle instead. She didn’t fall asleep feeding and went to bed and settled quite happily.”
Gemma Hinton, 28, from Leeds, mum to Madeleine, 3, and Abigail, 5 months
From 3 months, try diffusing Chamomile Roman (£11.25 for 5ml,), an essential oil perfect for babies, into his room. Place a drop in a pint of hot water in a heatproof bowl 15 minutes before you settle him down to bed.