Fussy babies - is it the arsenic hour?

by Susan Greenbank, ABA counsellor

Arsenic hour

The arsenic hour is that time in the early to mid (or sometimes late!) evening when our babies and young children can go from their previously placid, contented selves to crying, unhappy infants seemingly at the flick of a magic switch. It is not known exactly why babies have periods like this, but as so many have them, it may be important to their development.

Often these periods start around four to six weeks of age and start to reduce around 12 weeks of age. Even if no particular cause is identified for your unsettled evenings, you can be fairly confident they will improve in a few weeks. Some people will describe these unsettled periods as your baby having 'colic'.

Often babies will want to feed frequently in the early evening and may not settle to sleep easily. Many a couple can recall having to eat tag-team style with one carrying an upset baby while the other gulps down their dinner.

There are a few theories as to why babies behave like this in the evening. However, not all crying can be explained away as the 'arsenic hour'. If you are concerned by your baby's behaviour, have your medical adviser examine your baby and make sure his crying is not due to a medical problem, such as gastro-oesophageal reflux.

Many mums also feel their milk supply is lower in the late afternoon/evening. Certainly your breasts can feel they are less full of milk than earlier in the day. Rest assured there is milk there, as breasts are never totally empty. As soon as your baby starts feeding, this sends the message for your breasts to produce more milk.

Some mums feel their babies are hungrier in the evening and need to 'fill up' before sleeping for a longer period at night. This may make them feed more frequently or for longer at this time. Some babies also have a strong need to suck for comfort and will become unsettled soon after coming off the breast.

Following your baby's lead and feeding according to need can be the answer here. You may need to feed very frequently for a few hours, but will have a settled, sleepy baby at the end of it all. It has also been theorised that we need this frequent feeding in the early evening to help maintain our milk supply for the following day.

Another important possible cause for unsettled evening behaviour is over-stimulation. Some babies find it harder to cope with changes to their surroundings and by the end of the day may be overwrought.

Children of all ages are often tired and cranky by the end of the day. After all, they have spent the day learning, experiencing and growing at a much higher level than we adults! Unfortunately, in most Australian homes, this time coincides with when adults 'wind up' as we or our partners arrive home from work, make dinner, turn on the television news etc.

Contrast this to when it is 10.00am and you have a crying baby. It's not nearly so stressful when you know you have the whole day ahead of you to get things done. However, at 6.00pm the stress meter is in the red as you realise you only have half an hour before your partner is home and dinner isn't even started! Perhaps our babies can sense this stress.

Some ways to ease their distress and help them settle are to reduce stimulation in the home. Turn off the television and dim the lights. Try and cook dinner earlier in the day so you have time to sit and feed. Ask your partner to keep after-work playtime to quiet activities, reading stories etc. Give your baby a peaceful, warm bath.

If you need to get things done, some babies will be happier carried in a sling, such as the ABA baby sling or Meh Tai, and kept close to you. Some mums also keep their pram or rocker in the living area at this time so they can rock/push baby while they work.

If available, it can help to enlist your partner or another adult in dealing with older children, pets, phone calls and the dishes. Your partner may definitely need to put off a sit-down after work until the baby and other children are settled for the night (or at least an hour or two!).

We have mentioned above how babies and young children can be at their lowest ebb in the early evenings. This goes for us too! After perhaps being up the night before and a busy day where we most likely haven't eaten enough or rested enough, it is no wonder we feel tired and cranky too.

Some things that have helped me with the arsenic hour with my two children are:

  • Accepting that the time from 5.00pm or so onwards is going to be busy and stressful and that it is 'baby/child' time - I will have 'my' time once they are asleep. This even remains so now I am back in paid employment part-time. As I drive home from work I mentally prepare myself to switch to 'mum' mode and know I will be in demand for a couple of hours. No matter how tired I am, there is no sitting down for a break when I get home!
  • If you get them down for an afternoon nap, ditch the housework and have a cup of tea and a rest instead, so you'll have more energy for unsettled times later on.
  • Realising that sometimes there is no solution other than to hold them, cuddle them, feed them and wait for it to pass.
  • Trying to be home from wherever we have to go by 4.30pm and remembering for me to eat, drink and go to the loo before we drive home. It's terrible to arrive home thirsty or starving and then have to spend the next hour feeding, changing, sorting out dinner etc!
  • Trying to have dinner ready as early as possible so I can feed the kids early if they are tired. Or, forgetting about the proper cooked meal and giving them scrambled eggs or spaghetti on toast!
  • Cooking double on days I am at home so I have meals in the freezer (thank heaven for microwaves).
  • Going 'incommunicado' while we do dinner, bath, bed - letting the phone go to voice mail and not answering texts/Facebook etc so we can concentrate on getting the little ones settled.
  • Saying to myself over and over again as I paced 'she has to go to sleep eventually'.
  • Handing the baby over to my partner or whoever was around when I felt myself 'boiling over'. Sometimes they need to be held by someone who is a bit calmer or even put in their pram and taken for a walk (yes, I have been seen walking up and down our street with the pram at midnight!).  

So next time you're experiencing the 'arsenic hour', remember you are not alone and this phase will pass eventually.

© Australian Breastfeeding Association Reviewed October 2012