It is extremely common for babies—especially when they’re younger than about three or four months—to have a really difficult time in the evening. They get fussy or sometimes even take their fussiness to the max and scream inconsolably. So what’s a parent to do?
The good news is that if you’re in what is sometimes called the period of PURPLE crying, it eventually ends. PURPLE is an acronym developed by a group of experts led by Ronald Barr, who is a developmental pediatrician in Vancouver. The acronym stands for Peak of crying (lots of crying that usually peaks around two months of age and decreases by three or four months), Unexpected (crying comes and goes without a discernible reason), Resists soothing (comforting the baby is unsuccessful), Pain-like face (baby makes a face like they are in pain even if they’re not), Long lasting (crying may last for many hours a day), Evening (most often happens in the late afternoon or evening).
The whole point is that it’s normal for babies to increase their crying around two weeks of age, then continue crying a lot, especially in the evenings, up through about three or four months, when crying decreases. It’s part of normal behavioral development, but it can be really frustrating for parents and caregivers. If you feel any concerns that your baby’s crying may be beyond normal, talk to your pediatrician, but if it seems to be just within the normal range, read on for some ideas about dealing with the so-called witching hour.
If your baby is fed (and a lot of babies want to eat semi-constantly for hours every night during growth spurts, which is called cluster feeding) or refusing to feed, has a fresh diaper, and isn’t too hot or cold or in pain, they could be overstimulated. One of the most interesting things I learned as a new mom was that baby’s nervous system is easily overwhelmed, especially starting around two weeks of age when they wake up a bit more and notice how busy the world is.
If your baby isn’t responding to any of the techniques you’ve tried to calm them, it’s possible they are sleepy. Some really little babies can only stay awake about 45 minutes at a time—and that includes the time that they’re eating and having their diaper changed—meaning that it’s easy to wear them out. But when they get too tired, then they don’t have the psychological resources to settle down and sleep.
If this sounds like your baby, and they’re screaming their head off, go somewhere with very low lights and no sounds (or soft white noise). Hold your baby, or lay them on a safe sleep surface with your hand lightly resting on their chest or belly. You could also try skin-to-skin, where you and baby both get naked from the waist up and then you let baby rest on your chest, where they’ll hear your heartbeat. If baby is still screaming, take deep breaths and tell yourself that the crying is part of their development and is normal. If you need a break, it’s okay to let baby scream in their safe sleep spot for a few minutes or to call in another adult.
Taking turns is a great way to deal with the witching hour. If you can’t stand to hear baby cry when it’s not your turn, take a shower or go for a walk or to sit in your car. Another strategy that can minimize the impact the crying has on your senses is to use earplugs. The cheap foam kind that you can get at any drug store will allow you to hear enough that you and baby will be safe, but there are also fancy earplugs these days that you can order that are designed to minimize the impact of noises but allow you to still hear most things.
Getting support from outside your immediate family during this time is also really helpful. Do you have a friend who can come over and keep you company during the evening hours or even hold baby for a while so you can take a walk or a shower? You don’t have to do this alone, and it will end. You can get through this tough time.