Arsenic “hour”, witching “hour” – any new parent knows that much like “morning” sickness, the duration of this period can be definitely underestimated! It can start as soon as you come home from the hospital (but usually at 2-3 weeks, peaking at 6 weeks and resolving by 4 months) and be incredibly overwhelming. Babies seem fussy, can cry and sometimes even seem in pain which understandably leads to parental distress and anxiety. Every family we come across just wants to do the best by their baby and when it feels like we can’t meet their needs it can affect our confidence.
So, why is this happening and what can you do? SO MUCH is going on for babies neurodevelopmentally in the first months of life. Everything is new to them and so many changes in the brain are happening. The environment outside of the uterus is completely foreign. From an evolutionary perspective, babies need to know that their parents are close and providing comfort. We encourage families to reflect back on the “two tools” for dialling a baby down (turning down the volume on an old school radio). The two tools are the cornerstone that you can always go back to and switch between.
Number one. Feed. Whether your baby is bottle or breastfed, frequent offering of milk during this time may assist in calming your baby. To families that are bottle feeding, it may mean your baby will not take the entire volume of milk at one time, but smaller amounts at more frequent intervals. As I say to families, we don’t always sit down for a three course meal every time we eat, so babies may just need frequent snacks rather than an entire bottle. Paced bottle feeding is a great way to feed to your baby’s appetite. For breastfeeding mums, we know that the level of prolactin, the milk making hormone fluctuates over the course of the day and is often lowest in the late afternoon/evening. This doesn’t necessarily mean supply is lower, but the flow of milk is slower. For those babies used to a fast flow at other times, they may appear fussy at the breast, shaking their heads and at times even hitting at the breast in order to stimulate flow. Rest assured, THERE IS MILK THERE, it is just the tap isn’t turned on full bore. This means you may have to switch breasts frequently to encourage further let downs to keep baby interested. It is definitely not unusual for these feeds to look totally different to the other feeds in the day. You may be standing, in the bath or switching from side to side frequently. This also serves to help boost supply and lay a good foundation for breast feeding long term, as well as hopefully ensure a longer snatch of sleep at bedtime. Sometimes you will need to switch to the second tool to help calm baby before offering the breast again. It is also essential to ensure positional stability is achieved during a breastfeed (as we discuss during lactation consults, in line with Gestalt Breastfeeding, see possumsonline.com) to eliminate suboptimal fit and hold as a cause of dialling up at the breast. Rest assured, you will not “overfeed” your breastfed baby in this situation. You are NOT creating bad habits. You are responding to your baby’s cues and doing what you need to do to manage the day.
Number two. Sensory. We appreciate this is a challenge during Winter and also doing times of Covid19 restrictions, but encourage families to get creative. If you know your baby enjoys a bath, have longer stretches of water play. If it isn’t raining, bundle baby up for a walk. Even sometimes just turning music on and moving to a different room can assist in turning the dial back down. This may be the time another parent is coming home from work and sometimes a new face is enough to help settle (and give the other caregiver a brief period of time out to turn their own dial down!). You may not turn the dial down for long, this may be exhausting, but it will make this time a little less stressful. I appreciate this differs from the usual advice to not “overstimulate” your baby, but experiment – we usually get the feedback that it helps dial both baby and parent down! Some families even elect to spend time outside their home during this time, in order to share the load or provide further sensory input. Every family and baby is different, but we want you to feel empowered to experiment to determine what works best for your family unit.
Of course, when babies become unsettled and cry, our natural concern is that they are in pain of some kind. Sometimes babies may even vomit, draw their legs up or pass wind during this challenging period, reaffirming our concerns. Typically, this is happening at the time GP clinics and parent hotlines are closed, just to add insult to injury! When a baby is frequently dialled up, it can lead to chronic sympathetic nervous system hyperarousal which may induce low grade pro-inflammatory states and gut symptoms. Often a feed may help alleviate these symptoms, so before you think “this baby can’t be hungry, I just fed it”, re-visit the two tools and try another feed.
Usually in our minds, evening means bed time. Many families feel that they need to put baby to bed in their own sleep environment and unfortunately the time we think this needs to happen is bang in the thick of witching hour, when baby wants nothing more to be in physical contact with you. This is reflected by a study that compares babies in the UK and Denmark and their crying time. It was found Danish families, who had more physical contact with their babies and more likely to utilise a “cued care” approach, were more likely to parent babies that cried less. My personal advice is to invest in a good carrier and ensure it is fitted appropriately for you. I wasn’t a huge fan of being glued to the couch watching Netflix when my boys were young (oh, how times have changed!) and a carrier allowed me to move around the house and chip away at little things that needed to be done whilst changing up baby’s sensory input (I never mastered feeding in a carrier but that is an option as well!).
It is definitely a tough time, but hopefully some of these suggestions can be used to experiment to make things easier. If you have a village, assemble them and ask for some meals, preferably ones that can be eaten one-handed! You are not creating bad habits by holding your baby close and feeding it often and hopefully it can help all members of the family have a more enjoyable end of the day. At the same time, we acknowledge that this demanding situation can absolutely affect your mental health and we are there to debrief and troubleshoot when the overwhelm is just too much.
By Rhiannon Smith
Reference: Wolke et al., Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis: Fussing and Crying durations and Prevalence of Colic in Infants, J Pediatr 2017 Jun; 185:55-61.e4