The Witching Hour: Demystifying the Extra Fussy Baby

Does your angelic newborn turn into a fussy baby late in the afternoon? Here’s why it happens, and what you can do to save your sanity.

y lovely son, Lucas, is a relatively low-maintenance baby. When he was still a newborn, he spent most of his days either just feeding or sleeping. Mentally, I prepared myself for the worst—a baby who would announce his arrival to the neighborhood by crying loudly for hours. But we were lucky enough that my son didn’t turn out that way. Upon visiting us, my wide-eyed mom exclaimed, Ang tahimik nya, parang walang baby sa bahay nyo!”

But when Lucas turned two weeks old, a new pattern started to emerge. Most of the time, he was still a perfect angel. We’d spend most of the day peacefully bonding with each other—nursing, sleeping, changing diapers and taking sponge baths. Even when he wakes up in the middle of the night, it’s still pretty easy to soothe and nurse him down to sleep. But when the clock ticks 6 PM, his mood starts to flip.

He wakes up from his afternoon nap, heavily fussy. I’d check his diaper and change him, but even then he’s still cranky. Perhaps he’s hungry, so I would nurse him. He latches on for like three minutes, and then he starts kicking to pull away from me. I would gently pat his back until he lets out a burp. He calms down and sometimes he’d even fall asleep—and then wake up after 10 minutes, making his usual grunting sounds. I’d pick him up to rock him and sing a lullaby, but none of our usual soothing techniques would do the trick. This terrible mood goes on until he finally falls asleep, exhausted by his own doing, at 9 PM. And he does this on most days of the week. 

A fussy baby Lucas.
A fussy baby Lucas.

I began to dread each late afternoon.

If you’re a new parent and this sounds familiar to you, it’s because it happens to most babies at some point. And we have an uncanny name for it: The Witching Hour.

Just Another Part of Growth

The Witching Hour (some call it Arsenic Hour) is the time of the day, usually late in the afternoon or early in the evening, when a newborn gets suddenly hysterical for no obvious reason. Babies usually start to show this pattern at two to three weeks of age, peaks at about 6 weeks, and then it often goes away by the age of 3 months. 

Extreme fussiness during the witching hour—I must say—is different from colic. The age in which they appear in babies overlap, but they’re not the same. True colic is a condition where a baby cries continuously for at least three hours, at least three days in a week, for at least three weeks in a row. (Whew! I-describe pa lang mahirap na!) In my son’s case, he was just irritable, but he never cried hysterically for hours. If you think your baby has colic, it’s way better to take a doctor’s advice than listen to a random stranger on the internet.

So what causes the witching hour? Witchcraft? Lol, no.

Experts propose more than one reason to this curious phenomenon. One popular theory is that we have slower milk flow in the afternoon. Prolactin, the hormone that allows us to make milk, often takes a dip in the afternoon. Although prolactin doesn’t drop too low that we end up starving our babies, the slightly lower supply makes the milk flow a bit slower. When the baby sucks and he notices that he isn’t getting as much as he’s used to, he fusses. A counter-argument to this theory, however, is that formula-fed babies also get fussy, and it’s not like formula levels could fluctuate or something.

Another popular explanation is that babies get tired. Newborns need about 16 hours of sleep per day. Some parents and caregivers try to keep babies awake during the day, but that doesn’t really help. Newborns will wake up at night every 2-4 hours no matter what, because they will need to replenish their tiny tummies. If a baby is kept from having enough sleep throughout the day, he’ll probably get overtired, and become cranky. One thing that sheds doubt to this theory is that even well-rested babies who sleep most of the day (like my son) still get fussy in the afternoon.

One more popular theory has something to do with their immature digestion. Some say that the fussiness is actually a reaction to something the mom ate if she’s breastfeeding, or the lactose in milk. However, if this were true, why would it affect babies only in the afternoon? Shouldn’t those reactions be somewhat consistent to whenever the babies nurse or the mom consumes a certain food? While doing my research, I actually stumbled upon a couple of websites that champion this theory, only to find out that they sell something that would supposedly help soothe your baby (makes them the least credible kind of source if you think about it).

One last popular explanation for evening fussiness in babies, and perhaps what I think was more applicable to our case, is overstimulation. In the first two weeks, babies are just asleep and indifferent to their surroundings. As they mature, they become more aware and more sensitive to light, noises, and the people around them. In most households, 6-7 PM is when tired working adults come home, and start scrambling to prepare for dinner. More people means more conversations, and a lot more noise. Although the womb isn’t all that quiet (there’s your heartbeat and your gushing bloodstream), it’s secure, constant, and predictable. And because babies haven’t learned how to self-soothe at this age, they feel overwhelmed and get fussy. 

While scientists have forever to figure out what causes the witching hour, we parents don’t have that luxury. We may not know exactly why our lovely angels turn into cranky monsters around dinnertime, but we have to do something about it. So here’s a rundown of some tips that helped us survive my son’s fussy baby phase. 

5-S for Soothing a Fussy Baby

Popular parenting book The Happiest Baby on the Block refers to baby’s first trimester as the virtual 4th trimester.” It basically says that to keep babies at peace during the first three months, we need to recreate sensations inside the womb. How? Through the smart mnemonic called the 5S:

1. Swaddle - Wrap baby in a comfortably tight swaddle, reminding them of how they fit snugly inside the womb. A proper swaddle should be comfortably tight around the arms, and loose from the hips down, to prevent hip injuries. Be sure to follow these instructions for safe swaddling.

After many failed attempts--a proper swaddle.
After many failed attempts--a proper swaddle.

2. Side or Stomach Position - Yes, babies should ALWAYS sleep on their backs. However, you can try turning them to their side or on their tummy while they’re awake, to keep them from fussing. Tummy time has a lot of benefits, and you can start doing it as early as day one.

3. Shush - Experts believe that babies don’t really thrive in total silence. Three weeks into parenting, we had to agree. When it comes to mimicking noises inside the womb, rumbly white noise does the trick. If you want to try if white noise will help soothe your baby, try playing this video, or you can purchase a white noise device.

4. Swing - Yup, life inside the womb was kinda bumpy, and this is why babies love being rocked. Go side to side, up and down, mix it up! Just remember to stay gentle and not do anything too jarring. You’re trying to calm baby down, not get him dizzy.


5. Suck - Ultimately, sucking is the default self-soothing mechanism that babies are born with. While they still haven’t mastered how to bring their thumb to mouth, we can facilitate that by providing a pacifier or offering the breast once in a while.

Having a mental checklist keeps me from panicking when my baby starts to get grumpy.

I am usually skeptical of cheesy mnemonics that sound like an oversimplification of things, but I can say from experience that knowing the 5S really comes in handy. For me, having this mental checklist saved me from panicking when my baby would start to get grumpy. I admit, it didn’t ALWAYS work its magic, as some nights were far worse than others. But going from 4-7 to just 1-2 fussy baby bouts per week, that’s good enough for me.

Other Tricks for Baby’s Fussy Nights

Another thing that helped us was adjusting our bedtime schedule. Since he gets fussy at around 6 PM, I prep him for sleep around that time instead of getting busy preparing for dinner or watching the evening news. I give him a warm sponge bath, then a gentle baby massage with a hypoallergenic lotion (which we both enjoy), and then change him into his pajamas. Fresh! 

If my son still gets cranky despite all the measures we took to make him comfortable, I put him in a swaddle, pick him up, rock and shush him. If it still doesn’t calm him down (which was very rare in our case), we take a walk outside. I think the change of scenery makes him curious, and it diverts his attention from whatever it is he finds unsettling. 

Finally, the most important tip is to stay calm. I must say that I’m not very good with patience myself, but what I learned from experience is that it’s nearly impossible to settle a baby if you’re agitated yourself. I don’t want to sound like hippy earth mama here, but I do think that babies are quite receptive, and they can sense our frustration. And guess what, I’m probably right

What I learned from experience is that it’s nearly impossible to settle a baby if you’re agitated yourself.

If you ever feel like you’re already at the end of your rope, don’t feel guilty about it. Take turns with your partner or helper and unwind for a bit. If you have no one else at home, put the baby down in a safe place like a crib, leave the room for a few minutes to decompress, and start all over. Who knows, your baby might be a bit more relaxed when you return.

It takes a lot of guessing, trial and error, and of course, PATIENCE, to put up with it and stay calm. But when he finally settles, I feel like I’m the best mom ever.

It Goes Away, Promise!

Perhaps the most comforting thing about the witching hour is that usually, it goes away when your baby reaches 3 months old. I know, if you’re a new parent with a 3-week old fussy baby right now, two more months of this sounds like forever! I felt the same way when I came to the internet, scrambling for tips to help us get through this tough but perfectly normal phase. 

But believe me, those three months run by swiftly. And looking back, his fussy baby phase was yes, challenging--but also a special kind of sweet. It was really tough, it tested my kindness and patience to a huge extent, but those times were when I felt like my baby needed me most. I know, when Lucas reaches his teenage phase, perhaps a goth or whatever they’d call rebellious teenage freaks in year 2032, I will miss his moments as a fussy baby, when all he wanted was to be in my arms.

Looking back, those fussy nights were a special kind of sweet.
What’s Your Story?

Are you expecting? How are you preparing yourself for handling a fussy baby?

Are you mom, too? What other soothing tricks worked for you that I haven’t mentioned? 

I’d love to hear your stories below!

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