Why Does Our Baby Cry Every Evening? Is This Colic?

Why does our baby cry every evening?  She's two months old and this has been going on ever since she was ten days old.  Most of the day she is fairly content, but around 5:30 she starts to fuss and by 6:30 she's screaming.  We often spend the next two hours trying to get her to calm down: walking, rocking, singing, and feeding, but nothing seems to help until she falls asleep at 8:30.  She's mostly fine during the day but some evenings we feel like trading her in for a new model!   

The evening hours with a young baby have been called the "arsenic hours" and it sounds as though you have figured out why.  Most parents in your situation feel a combination of sympathy, frustration, inadequacy, and anger as their much loved baby howls her way through the evening.  Like you, they try all sorts of approaches to comfort their newborn.  Sometimes, by experimenting, parents find one approach that works for a few days.  Often, nothing they try makes a big difference.

No one knows why young babies cry in the evening, but they do. Evening crying used to be called “colic”, but that label is now used less often because the meaning is so vague. It may make you feel better to know that when large numbers of babies were observed to see how much crying was "normal"  it was found that many healthy babies fuss or cry for an average of two to three hours a day during the first few months of life.  Babies' average crying time increases until they are six to eight weeks old and then gradually decreases over the next two months.  Sometimes parents think they have found a "cure" for crying that seems to work, but the “cure” was effective because the baby was getting older anyway!

Even though the crying usually can't be "cured", parents do find that some techniques work when others have failed.  You are probably getting lots of helpful (and not so helpful) ideas from friends, but here are some that you may not have heard.

  • Extra holding time:  Holding your baby a lot when she's not crying may make it easier for you to comfort her when she starts again, but won't prevent her from crying altogether. Don’t worry about “spoiling”--at this age, babies need a lot of warm body contact.
  • Wrapping your baby:  Some babies quiet down when they are wrapped snugly in a receiving blanket.  This technique is especially useful for premature babies or for babies who seem very sensitive to their surroundings. If your baby can get her thumb or fist to her mouth, leave her arms free, since self soothing is one of the best skills a young baby can develop.
  • Taking a walk outside:  Many babies are quieted by the feeling of fresh air and motion.  Experiment to see if usinga stroller or front pack works better.  Even if this technique doesn't work to stop the crying, you will find that you'll feel better getting out of the house and having some exercise.
  • Playing background sounds or music that are steady, rhythmical and non stimulating: Some babies quiet to the sounds of vacuum cleaners, waves, or meditation music.  (The exceptional baby may actually soothe to loud rock music, but most parents have to settle for sounds that belong in elevators or massage studios.)
  • Food sensitivities are unlikely to cause crying only in the evening, but trying a short term experiment isn’t difficult. If you are breastfeeding, try eliminating all dairy products from your diet. A few babies are sensitive to the protein in cow's milk that passes through into breast milk.  If your baby has this sensitivity, you will see a decrease in her crying within three days.  Other dietary offenders in a mom’s diet can be cruciferous vegetables like broccoli or bulk producing laxatives. If you are formula feeding, you can consider changing to a soy based formula after talking to your health care provider.  Changing baby formula rarely makes a difference, although the formula manufacturers would like you to think it does.  If you don't see a difference in three days, go back to the first formula.
  • If your baby wants to nurse a lot but then cries after coming off the breast, it might be because her tummy is full and she just needs to suck for comfort.  Let her suck on your little finger (if your nails are short!) or a pacifier instead and see if that helps.  This kind of distress is normal and doesn’t need any treatment. (If your baby is distressed after every feeding throughout the day, that is not normal.  She may have a condition called reflux that can be helped by frequent small feedings, positioning, and occasionally medication.  Talk to your health care provider about this.)
  • You might find this next suggestion intolerable, but please consider it.  It’s possible that all the efforts you are making to soothe your baby are actually stimulating her and preventing her from falling asleep. If that’s the case, and it often is, the best thing to do is to let your baby cry without trying to comfort her.  This response is very difficult for many first time parents, but parents of more than one child will tell you that they often have to set a crying newborn down to cry alone when they need to attend to their older child.  They find that after the baby is left to cry for about ten minutes she will go to sleep.  Some babies seem to need a break from the parents' stimulation in order to calm themselves.
  • Take a break! If your baby cries regularly every evening, you'll feel a lot better if you can occasionally give up her care to someone else.  Choose a friend or family member that you trust--this is not a job for a teenage sitter!          

Evening crying eventually decreases and then disappears, typically at about fourteen weeks in a full term baby. Nevertheless, while it is going on it is a very difficult problem.  Get as much support as you can and enjoy your baby during the day so that you can keep your spirits up at night!