If you’re still pregnant, you want to make sure you have set yourself up for handling newborn sleep. And if you’re a new mother, I don’t need to convince you that this topic is important. While most new parents know babies wake up a lot during the night, most don’t know about the witching hour and why their baby is fussier at night.
If you aren’t familiar with newborn needs and cues specific to the witching hour, you might have hours and hours of evening crying that go late into the night.
Once I learned more about this time of the night from our pediatrician, mom blogs, a sleep consultant and google, our nights dramatically changed for the better. Following these tips and strategies will really help you in getting through the witching hours with a much happier baby and a lot more sleep for everyone. So here is your guide to surviving the witching hours.
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What is the witching hour?
The witching hour is a term used to describe the evening hours because they can be so damn hard. Depending on your baby, this could be just dinner time, all evening or even late into the night. If you have a newborn, you already know all too well how exhausting these evening hours can be.
My first was very colic and actually taught me a lot in understanding newborn needs. Even non-colic babies fall apart during this time and applying colic tips to this time can really help.
Why is baby fussier at night?
Starting at around 4pm, most babies become unsettled. They might constantly root and be agitated, hard to soothe and settle. They might also be waking up a lot instead of staying asleep. Baby is definitely tired but can’t sleep.
Why won’t babies sleep in the evening when they are tired?
- They need to cluster feed, a.k.a. marathon nursing.
- Digestion happens in the evening so they are working on farts and poops.
- They have a burp so they are uncomfortable.
- They don’t produce melatonin yet so they need help falling asleep.
Therefore, you will achieve the most success at getting baby to sleep by continually circling through these needs. After feeding baby, try to help them burp, fart and poop (I explain ways to help them do this later in this post). Next, try to help baby fall asleep with skin-to-skin, shhh-ing and motion. If baby is still up, try to nurse again. Keep repeating until one finally does the trick. Remember to keep your eye on the clock, you might be so focused on soothing baby and trying to get them to sleep that 2 hours might go by and now you have a hungry baby again. In fact, during this time it’s not uncommon for baby to want to nurse every 30 minutes. Now, here are more details on how to troubleshoot each one.
Nursing During the Witching Hour
One reason the witching hour exists is that they are trying very hard to intake enough calories to get them through the night. By night I mean one “long stretch”. A lot of babies will do one longer stretch of sleep such as 4 hours in a row if they are able to stock up on enough milk before. Cluster feeding, which means doing multiple feedings in a row, is how babies stock up on milk. To understand more about breastfeeding, check out my guide that entails all I learned from a lactation consultant.
The basics of breastfeeding
Therefore, starting in the early evening, baby wants to nurse constantly to get multiple letdowns. A letdown is when the milk starts to flow from the breast. A baby will trigger a letdown by sucking or even just by crying. Once the milk starts flowing, the first milk, known as foremilk, will be mainly water and then the later milk, known as hindmilk, will be mostly fat. Baby needs to stay on long enough for the slow fat milk.
How can you tell baby is getting enough breastmilk?
Watch baby’s sucking. You can tell if they are getting milk if you can hear them swallowing. Once they start to get milk, you want to wait until their sucking slows down. Sucking 3-4 times with long breaks is a good sign that they are drinking hindmilk. If they stay on even longer, they will eventually get another letdown because the sucking will trigger more milk to be released.
Once they either fall asleep or fall off the breast, it is also very common that they want to nurse again 10-20 minutes later. This is what cluster feeding is and it is how a baby will increase your milk supply.
Should I give my baby formula in the evening?
In the morning, nursing will be easiest, and in the evening, nursing will be the hardest. Your milk supply is highest in the morning and lowest in the evening because the hormones that make milk are produced when you sleep. This does not mean to supplement in the evening. Supplementing in the evening will tell your body to produce even less milk and that it doesn’t need to produce any in the evening. Instead, nurse as much as you can in the evening to fill baby up. The more baby nurses especially in the evening or during the night, the greater your milk supply will be.
Of course, follow your provider’s advice regarding supplementing if your baby isn’t adequately gaining weight. If they are gaining properly, try to avoid formula in the evenings to keep your milk supply high.
Why is baby harder to latch in the evening?
Babies are usually hard to latch at this time. So many evenings, my little one won’t latch even when the nipple is in her mouth. This frantic searching, which looks like they don’t want to nurse at all, actually means they are VERY hungry. Remember if baby is turning head side to side, that is searching and means “I’m hungry”. It is even common for baby to start crying once you bring baby to the nipple to nurse. Baby is saying “yes, I’m hungry” by crying. You should take their sign of crying to mean “finally, that is what I want”.
Keep trying to get baby to latch. I start standing a lot of time in the evening because then I bounce a little which helps to calm baby enough to get them to latch. They also might come off a lot until they get a few swallows of milk into their belly. They are frustrated that the milk didn’t letdown right away and pop off to tell you they are hungry (i.e. cry). Once they get a few gulps of milk, they usually start to calm down. If you are really struggling, use a pump to start the letdown. Once milk flows, switch to baby.
A typical nursing session in the evening might be nurse on one side. Baby shows hunger signs so you nurse on the other side. You might continue like this for an hour or two or more taking breaks for burps, farts and diaper changes. This is normal and the faster you respond to baby (i.e. nurse them a lot), the faster they can fill up and fall asleep.
Does my baby have acid reflux?
If it is challenging to latch baby during day and night and baby seems to get upset once the milk starts flowing, then talk to your pediatrician about acid reflux. A lot of times, baby will get upset and start to arch their back when the milk finally reaches their belly because the acid that comes back up from their stomach.
How to Help Digestion During the Evening
Babies come out of the womb without a fully functioning digestive system. This means they often need help to get all of their farts, poops and burps out. I can’t tell you how many nights where we couldn’t get baby to sleep until she finally pooped. She even fell asleep on the changing table a couple of times.
How to help your baby fart
Most babies have trouble farting. Seriously, they don’t even know how to engage the muscles needed. To help them out, put baby on the changing table with diaper off. Take baby’s feet and do bicycle kicks. You can also take their knees and press them up into their belly. Then let their legs relax and repeat. You can also use a Windi, which will also help with farts.
My baby’s poop looks weird
Be aware of what baby’s poops look like. If they have any mucus in them, it means something in their diet (your diet if you breastfeed or in their formula) is bothering their stomach. They are still developing so they might have an intolerance to a food that they will outgrow once their system matures a little more.
The common food intolerance is dairy. The ratio of the types of protein in dairy is very different than in breastmilk. When you eat dairy, it changes the ratio of proteins in your milk. Try giving up dairy for 3-4 days and you might see a dramatic difference. Be sure to check your prenatal pills for dairy also. I wrote about my experience with a dairy intolerance in the guide to a colic baby.
How to burp a baby
Burps can also cause baby to not be able to sleep. After feeding baby, be sure to keep them upright for about 15 minutes. Gentle pats on the back while baby is either sitting on your lap with your hand under their chin or with baby against your chest. Don’t put baby over your shoulder because this puts pressure on their chest and can prevent burps.
If you can’t get a burp, lay baby horizontal for a few minutes and then try again. If you are having a lot of issues with burps, try gripe water. Gripe water also seems to help colic babies just in general. Gripe water also might result in baby puking. If baby is prone to puking, then sit them up when you give them gripe water. Make sure to take burp breaks instead of giving them the whole dose at once.
How to Get Baby to Fall Asleep
Newborns can’t put themselves to sleep as they don’t start producing the sleep hormone, melatonin, until around 4 months. This means you need to help them. A lot of babies will nurse to sleep since breastmilk has melatonin in it. However, if that isn’t working, you are going to need to try motion or skin to skin.
Some babies will fall asleep in a swing or if you gently rock them. Mine never did. I found a wrap to be most effective. I would do skin to skin in the wrap. Once baby was in the wrap, I would hold the wrap, so baby was very secure and either walk the house or bounce on a yoga ball. If you try this method, you need to give it a solid few minutes. My babies never calmed down until they were in the wrap and I had been walking and shushing for at least a minute or two.
How to transfer baby to bed
Now that you have done all of this work to get baby nursed and asleep, the last thing you want is for them to wake up the second you put them down. Here are my best tips to accomplish the transfer.
1. Be Patient
First, ensure they have been asleep for 15-20 minutes on you. The first portion of sleep for babies is light sleep. Only after about 20 minutes do they enter deep sleep. Your next step is to prepare or have someone prepare their crib/bassinet/etc.
2. Prep their bed
Start by warming their bed with a heating pad since the change in temperature usually causes them to wake.
3. Transfer into a swaddle
Now that you are ready to transfer baby, start by slowing down your movement. Continue shushing the whole time. Slowly take the wrap off so you are holding baby. When you go to lower baby into the crib, be sure to hold both arms in so they don’t startle. I would then hold both arms in with one hand and swaddle with the other.
4. Swaddle (quickly)
Next, you need a swaddle that you can easily place baby in since they are currently in a wrap. I like the Ollie Swaddle since it is a simple wrap-like swaddle that doesn’t require any adjusting of baby. I also like it because you only have to buy one swaddle as it grows with baby. If you are one of those lucky ones like me who has a colic baby, the Ollie is something you must try.
5. Help them fall back asleep (if they woke)
If baby opens their eyes, try to reclose them by taking your hand and running it over their eyes. This will make them automatically close their eyes. You can also use this trick when trying to get them to close their eyes and go to sleep in the wrap.
How to calm a fussy baby who won’t nurse
When baby won’t calm down and you can’t get them to latch to nurse, you need to hit the reset button. The best reset button is a bath. You can do an infant tub or just use your tub and go in with baby. While baby is calm in the bath, you should take a breather. Before you take baby out of the bath, have a plan on what you are going to try.
I recommend getting in the bath with baby also because the bath will keep baby calm so try latching and nursing baby in the tub. I also suggest once baby gets out of the tub to get baby on the breast ASAP since you can’t overfeed a breastfed baby. Additionally, babies are always hungrier at this time of the day.
Now, how to keep night wake-ups short and easy
Another way to make your night easier is to make sure all night wake-ups are short. Your goal is to get to baby right away, nurse baby, and then get right back to sleep. You should only change their diaper if it is poop. One change I made with my first was using night specific diapers. They hold so much pee it’s crazy and baby stays dry so no rash, which can also add to baby’s fussiness from discomfort.
What to do when baby wakes in the night
When baby wakes up, you need to be able to turn on a nightlight or already have a dimmable nightlight in place that allows you to see and get baby without using additional lights. Quickly peek into their diaper to check for poop. If no poop, then get them on a breast. I like to nurse in bed and then I can just set baby back into a bassinet right next to my bed. No matter what your set up is, you want there to be as little disturbance as possible. Try to just feed them and then right back to bed. To teach them night isn’t for play, try to keep your voice low or don’t talk and don’t try to play as tempting as it might be. For more tips check out my article on the perfect baby sleep environment.
Clear your evenings by doing freezer meal prep so you can focus on getting baby through their witching hours. Stay on top of it by starting to offer extra feedings from 3pm on. Try to catch early hunger signs such as head turning, eating hands or rooting. Remember crying is a late hunger sign.
Continue to check for burps or help them try to fart or poop. If they are agitated, keep alternating between all of these options. Use reset buttons if you are getting frustrated such as a tub, a walk outside or hand baby off to someone else.
Try to get them to sleep with nursing, a wrap, a yoga ball or a swing. If they keep waking when you transfer them to a bed, try to warm it first with a heating pad. If baby wakes very soon after they fall asleep, try feeding them right when they wake while they are still waking up. Babies are always easiest to latch when they first wake and it might be exactly what they need to get into a deeper slumber.
You got this Mama
The days are long, but the years are short. You might not feel that way in the midst of it all, but this phase will end. Prepare yourself and plan on spending the evening (starting as early as 4 pm) on staying on top of baby’s needs. Plan on nursing a lot in the evening and wearing baby during the early night. My biggest tip to help you get through this is to prep dinner early on in the day or better yet use a Saturday or Sunday to bulk prepare some healthy freezer meals for your crockpot.
Once you finally do get them asleep, take lots of pictures! Nothing is more adorable than a sleeping baby.
If you have any questions, let me know in the comments, the best part about blogging for me is being able to help new moms.
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Trina Fitzgerald is a wife, mom, and blogger. She is the co-author of the Week-by-Week Bump Smart Course, the Nesting Planner and the Breastfeeding Handbook. She attributes her success at breastfeeding her own children with working with lactation consultants in the hospital in the early stages and on a weekly basis afterwards. By writing at MomSmartNotHard, she educates mamas-to-be on all things pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. Read more about Trina.