Colic and the Witching Hour – are they the same thing?

Most parents would have heard the word colic. In fact, I am sure quite a few would have probably used it themselves in relation to their baby. Colic is also a term that is often ascribed by other people to a baby. Maybe your baby is crying a lot and a kind relative or friend says, “Oh, your baby must have colic”. 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 used 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 late afternoon and 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.

This is also the same period that babies go through the “witching hour”. The witching hour is a period, usually in the late afternoon and/or evening, when your baby is unsettled, crying or difficult to settle off to sleep. This unsettledness 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. It also starts around three weeks and usually passes by 12 weeks. Sounds a lot like colic!

In research I have read, 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 a young baby is going through this tricky stage, there are a few tips to help make the period a little less stressful for everyone. Because this period of unsettledness usually occurs in the afternoon and evening, as well as brain development, 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 is also the end of the day, so young babies are 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 one to two hours since their last feed, then feed again. You may need to do this a couple of times before the baby will settle and sleep.
  • Take your baby into a darkened room, wrap them up, put on some white noise and rock them in your arms until they are asleep. This helps reduce the stimulation around them and keeps them in a calm and quite place.
  • 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.

Research articles can be found here: