The Witching Hour

Every night between 8 and 9 PM, my baby screams like an adolescent girl at a 1960s Beatles concert. Or like he’s being dipped in acid – but that’s sort of a grim image. You could actually set your watch to it; I have a remarkably punctual baby.

The other night, I was finishing up a diaper change when my mom called. As we chatted, Julian happily pedaled his legs and cooed, even smiling a few of his new, tentative smiles up at me – he likes being in the cushy elevated cradle of his changing table. I glanced at the clock (7:58) and told my mom that Julian’s “fussy time” (what a pleasant euphemism) was about to start. And then, right on cue, my baby went from doing contended little air aerobics to full on eyes-shut, head-thrown-back screaming. “Well, it’s beginning,” I said to my mom, and hung up.

The Witching Hour first appeared during Christmas week, when Julian was about three weeks old – I remember because we were staying at my parents’ house, and when the crying began right before bedtime, Michael and I mistakenly thought,  “Hmmm, there must be a reason for this sudden show of angry despair.” So we flipped through our Rolodex of potential causes: clean diaper? Check. Fully fed? Check. Burped? Check. Cold? Nope. Overheated? Nope. Did I eat anything weird? Nope. Stigmata? Uh, no. And so on. We eventually concluded, “it must be gas,” because newborn crying has this grunty edge to it, and we even bought some drops to pop the (nonexistent) air bubbles in his tummy.

Now, however, as a seasoned parent of seven weeks, I can say with authority that when my son cries like this, there is no bloody reason for it. And that’s mostly true. My current working hypothesis is that Julian gets overstimulated and tired right before bedtime, and his growing brain hasn’t quite figured out how to simply sleep when he is that tired – he must first loudly protest his discomfort and existential angst.

I think there is some truth to that, because there have been a couple of evenings where things were livelier than usual, with more noise, activity and interaction, etc., and the Witching Hour began earlier and was more intense on those nights. But there have also been peaceful, nap-filled days, and times when Julian has literally had a good nap right before the Witching Hour – and the screaming still happens. This is just, apparently, something Julian needs to do before he can settle into a good, night-long sleep (which he eventually does, almost every night).

Overall, I know that I have it pretty good, because that hour is pretty much the only time Julian reallycries, aside from the intermittent whiny fussing during the day to let us know he’s hungry, or tired, or working on a good poo. It’s like he’s saving it all for that ultimate evening explosion.

Plus, I’m lucky to have an amazing co-parent in Michael, and together we’ve developed a pretty solid routine in response to the Witching Hour. When Julian first goes off, Michael pops him in the moby wrap and carries him around until he stops crying and falls into a deep sleep. On easy nights, that’s all it takes, and we can just transfer him from the moby right into bed. Other times, Julian will wake up for an encore after being carried, and we’ll pull out the most powerful weapon in our arsenal: bath time.

We have one of those European-style bucket bathtubs for Julian – I wanted one after seeing a bunch of fat, naked, gurgling babies sitting in their little bucket Jacuzzis on television somewhere. Who can resist that level of cuteness? Not I. And then I lucked out and found a cheap one at a consignment shop. I had very high hopes for this bucket, after hearing about how babies are apparently supposed to love it, how it’s like being back in the womb, etc. And, sure enough, when Julian is in his little bucket tub, he is instantly soothed into his happiest, calmest self.

This bath thing almost always works – but it can’t be done too early in the Witching Hour, or he’ll just start up again once he’s out of the water. No matter how many times we’ve tried to circumvent the deluge with a preemptive bath or moby ride, the Witching Hour still arrives. Seems like we just have to wait and let the screaming spell begin, and then jump in to make it as short and painless as possible.

Most of the time, with these tactics, Michael and I breeze right through, no problem. The strange thing is, Julian doesn’t go from crying into a deep sleep. After we’ve successfully soothed him, he enters this mellow, pre-sleep state, where he just chills on the bed, eyes half-closed, and sucks his binky. He does this sometimes for as long as two hours before he finally conks out for good. I’m a little mystified by this behavior, but he seems completely content as long as I keep his binky in place (can’t wait until he figures out how to do that himself!), so I usually take advantage of that time to accomplish amazing feats like doing yet another load of laundry or emptying the dishwasher or watching British crime drama on Netflix. Then, by the time I’m ready to sleep, he usually is, too.

There have been a couple of nights, though, where things have not gone so smoothly – the nights when I’ve had to weather the Witching Hour solo. The first time was when Michael became suddenly and violently ill with the stomach flu right around New Years Eve. This same bug had been leveling my visiting extended family like Dominos, so my heart sank when Michael came into the bedroom around five in the evening to say, casually, “Just so you know, I’m feeling pretty nauseous right now.” And then, not long after that, I could hear him through the bedroom ceiling in the upstairs bathroom, retching. (Happy New Year!)

When Michael vomits it sounds horrific, like someone is stabbing him repeatedly in the gut. Even though I knew he was just throwing up, the violence of it made my skin crawl, and I began to feel a little desperate, sitting alone with the baby, darkness already fallen outside, figuring I had only a short time before I’d be ill, too.

But, amazingly, I didn’t get sick that night, or the next.  I pretty much hid in the bedroom with Julian, only venturing out like a frightened animal to get bits of food here and there (I actually didn’t eat much, because I kept imagining what it would be like coming back up, so sure I’d get sick any minute). The whole house suddenly felt hostile, like any errant brush against the wrong doorknob would infect me, and I felt desperate to stay healthy to avoid getting my newborn exposed. (And to avoid trying to breastfeed in the midst of puking my guts out.)

Well, I never got sick, and neither did Julian, but Michael had it bad, so for about 72 hours I was completely on my own with a four week-old baby who had just begun having these mysterious nightly screaming rituals. I did pretty well – the days were actually seamless – but toward the end of that third day, when the sun was gone and with it my optimism and stamina, I found myself unable to cope when Julian started his fit. I was exhausted, alone, underfed, and after several days completely on my own, whatever emotional well it is that parents draw from to weather the Witching Hour – it was dry. Maybe it was ten minutes, maybe it was an hour (time flows differently when your baby is screaming), but after he’d been crying for awhile – hard, purple-faced crying – and none of my desperate attempts to soothe him were working, I had to just lay him on the bed and leave the room.

When he cries like that, sirens go off in my head. This isn’t just an emotional response; it’s absolutely physiological. Some alarm goes off in my brain, and I instantly feel a surge of adrenaline, a sense that this is an emergency and I must do everything in my power to make it stop. That night, when I couldn’t quell him, when the sirens in my head just kept shrieking and shrieking, I had what I can only describe as a panic attack, but rather than panic, I was incapacitated with frustration. I had a frustration attack. I left my baby on the bed, slammed the bedroom door behind me, and went into the living room, where I proceeded to punch the couch repeatedly and make strange animal noises. Then, like Julian, I just had to cry for a bit.

Obviously, this was not my finest parenting moment. I’m embarrassed about it even as I write this, even though I can still remember vividly the hot, blinding force of that frustration tsunami. I’ve never experienced anything like it.  

This past Friday night, after a couple of smooth weeks, I was afraid I was going to have another “attack.” The previous day Michael and I had been uber-productive; things had been going so well that we sort of hurled ourselves into the mirage of our former lives: I went for a run, cleaned the house, did some writing, and Michael went outside to do yard work after a long hiatus – until a wayward tree branch snapped back and hit him right in the eye, injuring his cornea. It took awhile for the severity of the injury to dawn on us, and by the next day his eye was red, swollen, oozing, and in excruciating pain. The first thing he did that morning was call the doctor and set off on a nightmarish, one-eyed trip to the urgent care clinic in Beaverton, about 40 minutes away.

As for me, I must have had two bad latches during the nighttime feeding sessions, because I had been up since about 4 AM with a nasty bout of vasospasm in troublesome ol’ Right Boob. The blood vessels in my breast were constricting in painful, sporadic spasms – basically, it felt like someone was stabbing my breast through the nipple with a red-hot ice pick. Also, as a sort of cherry on top, the nipple on that breast had erupted into a cluster of blisters.

So, we were both in a sorry state that morning. Luckily, I had some leftover Vicodin from my hospital stay, so I took one and then camped out in the rocking chair all morning while Julian took a three-hour nap on my belly. I didn’t eat until 2 PM that day.

When Michael came home, it was apparent that he was down for the count. Good news: the scratch on his cornea would heal quickly. Bad news: because of the exposed nerves on his eye, he would be in severe pain until it did. He did feel momentarily buoyed by his prescription pain meds – enough to make himself an “iPatch” – but once that wore off a bit, he was in bed holding ice against his eye, pretty much unable to move.


There we were, both in intense pain, but me the far more mobile one, so I knew that I would be riding out the Witching Hour alone, without much (any) physical or emotional energy tanked up. Michael, of course, prone to martyrdom, offered to carry him in the moby, but I knew he needed to rest.

The screaming began right on time, and after wrapping Julian to me, I began a bouncy, shushing walk through the house, turning down the lights and shutting the curtains. At first he seemed to be quieting down, and my heart surged with the hope that it would be an easy night, because I was so tired and hungry and hurting, but that brief pause in his crying only enabled him to gather his energies for an even greater eruption.

And then I began to feel it – sirens blaring in my brain, a mounting wave of desperation, building and cresting. Here it comes, I thought. I’m going to lose it again. My lips were resting against his damp head, sweaty from the force of his crying – and I glanced down to see that he was clutching at my shirt with his tiny fists, pulling himself even tighter against me.

When I saw this, the frustration ebbed a bit; I felt a rush of empathy, and with it the realization that my baby wasn’t screaming at me. He wasn’t screaming because he hates me or because he thinks I’m a shitty mother – he was screaming because he’s upset, because it’s just hard being a baby with a sensitive, developing neurological system. And, even though it didn’t feel like it, my presence was comforting him. He needed to be able to scream in my arms, against my chest, against the thump of my heart, my warm breath on his skin. Clearly I couldn’t immediately fix whatever was making him so upset – but I could be there with him, in the midst of it. And that’s perhaps what he needed most: to know that I was there.

So I held him as he squirmed and cried against me, clinging to my shirt with his little hands, while all that frustration just sort of melted into a deep tenderness. And I began, in that moment, to completely believe what I was whispering to him.

You’re okay. You’re okay. You’re okay. 



  1. Katherine

    I cannot handle the cuteness of your son in his bath bucket!! Oh my.

    My son had his own witching hours as a newborn – between 5-7pm like clockwork.