Most babies have “witching hours” or a fussy time each day for about the first 12 weeks of life. For most babies this is in the evening, but it can occur at any time of the day. During this time, your baby may be difficult to soothe. They may show signs of hunger, but when offered the bottle or breast, they only suck a few times, then seem to fall asleep. When you go to move them, they wake up acting frantically hungry. They get fussier when you put down and often aren’t able to be settled by a caregiver other than their milk maker.
If you are nursing, this behavior is often coupled with empty evening boobs or a feeling that your breasts are depleted of milk.
Babies (and you) are often overtired and overstimulated at the end of the day, making matters feel worse.
It is normal to try to make meaning of your baby’s unhappiness. Parents often try to figure out “what they did wrong” or “what is causing this behavior.” This is common and normal, but often distracts us from being present in the task at hand: calming the baby.
First, here are some techniques to help you through those fussy times. Then, I will help you address what may be causing this fussy behavior.
Pre-Plan & Surrender
Seeing a pattern in fussy times? Get ready for it. Eat something about an hour beforehand, go to the bathroom, delegate tasks to your partner, settle in.
Consider surrendering to evening snuggles of on and off nursing. Because this is just a phase that will pass way too quickly. When else might you give yourself permission to sit and soak in just this one baby for hours?
Take It In Small Doses
Does your baby have to be on the breast for three hours straight? No, not really. So if you don’t want to be a milk slave for that long, or you need to break it up a little, then go ahead. Try 45 minutes on, 15-30 minutes off. Hand the baby to your partner or use the soothing techniques below to hold the baby off long enough for you to breathe, pee, and eat.
There are lots of different reasons why babies are fussy, but chances are that if this fussy time is in the evening, baby is overstimulated. If that’s the case, play mats, bouncers, and lots of direct eye contact and talking won’t work or will make fussiness worse. Try these techniques instead:
- Lower the lights or change the scenery. Go to a different room, go outside, look out the window.
- Loud white noise is what calms babies because it takes them “home” to the womb. SHHH loudly in baby’s ear, turn on a loud fan, run the water in the bathtub, or download a white noise app. It has to be fairly loud to work. Limit excessive loud talking, TV noise, or music.
- Figure out the right movement. Babies don’t like to be put down, so sitting isn’t an option unless you are bouncing on an exercise ball (this is a great technique). Wrapping a baby in a sling or carrier allows babies to move on all planes of space with you (like when they were in the belly) while also freeing your hands to do other things. Try having a support person wear the baby too!
- Change baby’s position. For some reason, babies settle when lying on their side, so hold baby in your forearm like a football on his side.
- Tuck baby into the right restriction. Newborn babies do not like to have their arms and legs flailing. They hit themselves in the face and they feel like they are falling. Put baby in a tight swaddle with hands in (I know your baby doesn’t like it, but just try it). Then, promptly start moving.
- Sucking! What settles babies most of all? Sucking. So, if you don’t want to nurse baby, strongly consider a pacifier. It is developmentally appropriate for an infant to have a pacifier, so be open to trying it (It doesn’t mean he will be sucking it when he is 4!) Often newborns need you to hold it in their mouth for them. If they spit it out, it isn’t purposeful, so put it back in to check if they will take it back.
- Put it all together. Sometimes you need to keep trying the same techniques in different combinations: Suck and swaddle and bounce on ball. Wear baby and use pacifier. Wear baby and go outside.
As a lactating parent, hearing your baby cry is particularly difficult. There is a unique physiological connection between your brain, breasts, and your baby. When your baby cries, your body gets ready to feed and you may feel a twinge of pain in your breasts and a rush of panic in your whole body.
Deep breath. Thank your body for reminding you that you have a baby. Deep breaths. Relax your body.
Tell yourself you are doing the best you can. Tell yourself it is ok to ask for help when you need it.
But why is baby so fussy?
First, consider the most likely reason: babies fuss. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong or you are doing anything wrong. Your baby is having a little baby experience and you are there to help them know they are safe by responding to their cries.
Baby is experiencing the uncomfortable sensation of gas movement in their body.
Baby is experiencing reflux, or spit up.
Baby is experiencing a growth spurt or developmental leap.
If baby is fussy while nursing
A baby who is fussy at the breast and tends to pop on and off and cry or fuss, then often relatches, only to repeat this pop off cry behavior again.
“Popping on and off” is not to be confused with the newborn who is still learning to latch during the first few weeks of life, nor should it be confused with the non-latching baby who isn’t really latching at all.
There is no quick and easy answer to this popping on and off phenomenon. The reason for popping on and off may be different at different feedings. There may even be more than one reason for popping on and off at the same nursing session. But, there are a few behaviors that hint toward reasons for the behavior. Read more about popping on and off here.