Colic and the witching hour – are they same thing?

Most parents would have heard the word colic. In fact, I am sure quite a few of you have probably used it yourself in relation to your children, or had someone tell you your baby had it. When a parent tells me that their baby has colic I always ask, “And what do you mean by colic?” as it is a term that people use to describe a whole range of behaviours.

Infantile colic has been around, as far as I can tell, since the 1950s, when it was defined as, “paroxysmal (sudden, brief and repetitive), excessive, inconsolable crying for more than three hours a day, at least three days a week, for one week or more in an otherwise healthy baby”. That definition hasn’t really changed since then and now it is usually diagnosed by the Rule of Three – crying for more than three hours per day, at least three days per week, for more than three weeks. This crying usually occurs in the evening, say from about 5pm to midnight, and starts around the two to three week mark, peaks around six weeks and then has usually passed by 12 weeks.

In my experience this is also the same period that babies go through the “witching hour”. I explain the witching hour as a period, usually in the afternoon or evening, when your baby is unsettled, crying or just won’t settle or go off to sleep. It usually lasts between two or three feeds, so they may be awake from one feed until their next feed is due without a sleep between. And in my opinion, it starts around three weeks and usually passes by 12 weeks.

Hmm, they sound similar, yes?

In the research studies I have read here and here, less than 5% of infants evaluated for excessive crying actually have an “organic etiology”, meaning they can actually be diagnosed with something being physically wrong.  And there seems to be a growing consensus among researchers that infant colic is a “developmental phenomenon involving individual differences in reactivity and regulatory function” rather than a physical ailment. Plainly said, I would think that means that it is basically a baby’s reaction to developmental changes and growth. And this is what I think is happening with the “witching hour”.

When I see a young baby who is going through this stage there are a few suggestions I give parents to make the period a little less stressful for everyone. Because this period of unsettledness usually occurs in the afternoon and evening, along with brain development, I think a couple of other things might be going on. One of these things could be hunger, particularly for babies who are breastfed. Breast milk supply decreases throughout the day, so by the afternoon or early evening a woman’s supply may be a bit low, causing the baby to want to eat constantly until they get a full tummy. It can also mean they won’t settle, or if they are really hungry, they may cry until they are fed again.

It is also the end of the day, and so, like the rest of us, I think young babies are just really exhausted by that time. They have so much brain development going on and are so sensitive to stimulation that they are going to be extra tired by the late afternoon. And when young babies are overtired they cry and cry and can be very difficult to get to sleep.

If you are dealing with a baby experiencing the witching hour, here are my top tips:

  • Cluster feed. This means feed the baby more regularly than you normally would. So, if your baby is still awake two hours since you last fed then, then offer another feed. You may need to do this again before the baby will settle and sleep.
  • If your baby is crying a lot and unable to go off to sleep, take your baby into a darkened room and rock them into your arms until they are asleep. This may take a while but try and reduce the stimulation around them and keep them in a calm and quite place.
  • If you need to get things done during this time you could wear your baby in a sling or a carrier to try and settle them. They often just want to be near their mothers or be held and comforted.

Remember, unless there is something physically wrong with your baby, like reflux, then this period will pass. If you require some help or support, please contact us here. We also have a video on settling an overtired baby here.

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