Running Down the Clock of Arsenic Hour
January 11, 2011 7:10 AM   Subscribe

Dealing with the baby's regularly scheduled freakout.

Every day between 4:20 (heh) and 4:50, our five month old flips out. This has been ongoing for months. I bring him home from daycare around 4 and usually have a good twenty minutes of happy baby before some magical switch gets flipped and it's Mad Time.

We've (and the doctor) ruled out colic and other such ailments and figure this is the dreaded Arsenic Hour that causes our folks to gloat and whisper about sweet revenge when we ask them about it. "It will get better," they say, sincerity and schadenfreude dripping from their voices in equal measure.

While I have my own set program for trying to deal with this based on what works and has not worked in the past, I'm interested in hearing how other modern families have coped in order to see if I'm missing something. I'm particularly interested in Dads' approaches, as our schedule is such that the earliest Mom can make it home is about a half hour into the screaming session.
posted by robocop is bleeding to Grab Bag (35 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
We called it "The Witching Hour" and it seemed to abate when my babies became mobile. That doesn't much help you now, with a presumably non-crawling critter, but at least it's something to possibly look forward to?
posted by cooker girl at 7:22 AM on January 11, 2011

Sorry if this sounds obvious, but is the baby hungry? That would be my first guess.

Also, the baby may yet be a bit too young for this, but I have found it useful to have some kind of transition activity to do in the in-between time of daycare/home/dinner. My toddler has a snack right away and then we read a few books while my husband makes dinner. It lets her relax a little bit from the hectic hubbub of daycare and quietness of home, I think.
posted by sutel at 7:22 AM on January 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

You don't mention if you've tried the usual stuff. I have a 6 month old, and right after day care is prime time for taking a nap.

Additionally: What exactly are you doing with him when you get home? What's the routine?
posted by bfranklin at 7:25 AM on January 11, 2011

This is horrible, and it does get better, but in the meantime: can you arrange to be doing something else at that hour? Like, at 4:15 pop the kid into the stroller and try a fast walk or run around the neighborhood? I say fast because sometimes a nice breeze in the face can turn the baby's attention to matters other than a total breakdown.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:29 AM on January 11, 2011

At the moment, the get home routine is aimed at winding him down. He gets some hugs, some playmat time with Dad, then as the switch starts to flip, he gets snugged up and put down for a nap in the cosleeper while Dad sits next to him and reads (sometimes aloud, as babies need to learn about the Horus Heresy sometime) and we count down the clock until Mom gets home.

He's usually polished off 5 ounces right before I pick him up from daycare (he's burped there and by me when I take him out of the carseat in case the ride home riled things up) and has a dry diaper.

Sorry about leaving all that out - in previous versions of this question I listed everything that had and hadn't helped and it felt like I was preemptively ruling out a lot of potential answers.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:33 AM on January 11, 2011

The mysterious 'knowing it's time to freak out' thing will pass for sure. Coping? Haha, I think I just waited... and now she just freaks out whenever she pleases. Take some comfort in the fact that you know when to expect it! I would agree with cooker girl when she said it tends to go away once the baby is mobile.

Best of luck keeping your sanity...
posted by sunshinesky at 7:33 AM on January 11, 2011

My guesses are hungry or tired, in which case an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Once a baby is super tired or super hungry it is a lot harder to soothe them, feed them, or put them down for a nap. If you suspect it, maybe try feeding happy baby or putting him to sleep. If the daycare has him on a sleeping/feeding schedule, it would make sense for him to get hungry/tired at the same time every day.

What happens on the weekend? What is his apologies like then?

apologies if it is something you've thought of already.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:33 AM on January 11, 2011

In the final stages of your pregnancy did you do anything in particular at those times?

You say this has been going on for months - it happened before daycare started?
posted by episodic at 7:34 AM on January 11, 2011

Soorry for non preview, my thought is to maybe put him down asap, good luck
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:36 AM on January 11, 2011

He's usually polished off 5 ounces right before I pick him up from daycare

Is it possible he has an upset stomach for some reason? I realize he is probably eating the same stuff all day, but maybe there's another factor?

Does this also happen on non-daycare days?

Another possible solution area: something he can somehow control, maybe your face reacting to him in some systematic way (sign language?).
posted by amtho at 7:40 AM on January 11, 2011

I'm a single mom, and I lived with my folks when my child was a baby. My dad, bless him eternally, would haul that little person onto his shoulder and jog around the living room singing a song in circus-music cadence. Or, the baby would go into a stroller and get wheeled around the house, stopping to open doors to look outside, or open and close the glass shower door, or something equally distracting and simple and interesting. This was very calming. Otherwise, I just made sure that she was safe and let her wail. She will grow out of it. And 4:20 - 4:50 is not so bad. My child's witching hour was between 5:30 - 7!
posted by lakersfan1222 at 7:40 AM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


The only surefire way to calm Toddler Zizzle down (and he had the colic of colics) were baths.

And it's unfortunate that this time of year is sooooooooo cooooooold, but being outside a lot helped.
posted by zizzle at 7:42 AM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, I should be clear: the 4:20-4:50 time is just the start. The actual session can last upwards of an hour and a half.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:43 AM on January 11, 2011

Also, as I recall, it passed about the time he turned 6 months, so with luck, your guy should outgrow it very soon.
posted by zizzle at 7:43 AM on January 11, 2011

Baby's get over stimulated just like us. They can take just so much and then they express themselves. At the end of a long day of daycare with new sights and sounds and people and whatever, they need to decompress just like you and me. Of course we have more adult was to relax, they haven't quite developed that yet (or reached the legal drinking age), so let it be as it is.

Some suggestions - start a routine that might help. Go for a walk, read a book, cuddle, some food, a favoritve play toy, sing a song. Find something that helps sooth the little one and make it part of your day.
posted by alfanut at 7:45 AM on January 11, 2011

If things get really frustrating you might want to look into talking to the folks at the fussy baby network 1.888.431.BABY. This is a national telephone support hotline. They can give some advice on helping to soothe both you and your baby. You can also check out the Period of PURPLE Crying resources. Some things they recommend include giving the baby a warm bath, holding the baby with skin-to-skin contact, and taking the baby for a walk or car ride. Even then they make it clear this will only work some of the time. Sometimes there really is nothing that can be done to make the little one stop crying. The “R” in the PURPLE stands for “Resists Soothing” because it is very typical for little ones to keep on crying no matter what you try. The best you can do is try not to get to overwhelmed by it and if things get too frustrating, put your little one someplace safe and leave the room for a few minutes. It is important to remember that you need to take a break for the crying and take care of yourself too.

The good part is that this behavior typically starts to reduce after 5-6 months of age so you should see a break in it soon.
posted by Palmcorder Yajna at 7:47 AM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, maybe try and get him down to nap before the switch starts to flip. Maybe make the room darker, too? (will interfere with your reading, sorry!)
posted by gaspode at 7:50 AM on January 11, 2011

I think it could be telling that the magical switch flips just after eating (okay, drinking). Both of my kids turned out to be lactose intolerant -- but with the first, we didn't realize it until months of having our happy baby turn unconsolable with seemingly no explanation ("she can't be hungry, she just ate 15-20 minutes ago!"). Digestion was a really painful process, it turned out. Once we made the change to lactose- and soy-free nutrition, the magical switch not only no longer flipped, it disappeared. Might be worth investigating.
posted by mothershock at 7:57 AM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

-If he has a set routine, and does this in a routine way: change the routine. Really, go for a walk, go for a drive.
-5 ounces may not be enough. Perhaps he is still hungry.
-Put him down to nap earlier, or don't put him down at all. Maybe he's overtired, maybe he's not tired at all.
-Baby swings
-It is not good strategy to read to a baby if you want him to go to sleep. It keeps them awake. Put him in a room alone and tuck him and leave him alone if you think he needs to sleep.
-Babies are not too young at this age to have a big opinion over something. I changed babysitters when mine was 5 months old, and he started flipping out at dropoff time. I mean like 'stuck with a diaper pin' flip out. I couldn't believe he could scream like that. That lasted for a solid month before he settled in.

-And lastly, he'll grow out of it. Maybe not before you go crazy, but eventually.
Hang in there.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:04 AM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

We have 2 munchkins - they're 6 and 2.5 now, so past the infant stage. But I've always worked full-time, and dad is almost always the one to pick them up at the end of the day while I get home an hour or so later. So we can relate.

Because of the way our schedules work out, my hubby makes dinner almost every night. So when he got home, the baby went into the high chair and watched while he started dinner prep. He'd hand him/her a toy or some Cheerios, turn on the radio, and let them do their thing. That became the routine, which they liked and relied on. If they had a bad day or wanted extra snuggling we'd wear them in a sling or baby carrier while dinner prep went on.

My oldest LOVED getting a massage every night. We took a course in infant massage from a local infant/prenatal massage therapist, and she recommended saving the daily massage routine for the 4 o' clock witching hour. Now, my 2nd kid wasn't ever that interested in it, so YMMV. But my oldest still loves having me massage his legs and feet, and that was a wonderful tool to have in my arsenal. So if you can get into a good infant massage class (something at least 3 weeks long with a certified instructor), it's worth a try. This was my class textbook - but the hands-on instruction and practice were what made it really click for us.

It might also be worth it to make a routine out of going for a walk, even if it means bundling up for the cold. Sometimes motion and fresh air helps -- sometimes it makes them scream more. Just depends. :)

Good luck!
posted by hms71 at 8:07 AM on January 11, 2011

How long has he been on 5 oz feedings? Does he get any solids yet? Melt downs in our house occurred either when tired or hungry at that age. Maybe try another two ounces when you first get home. Or as others have said, putting him down right away (does he sleep in the car?).

Is the baby still sleeping on his back (yes, yes, I know babies should sleep on their backs until they are one)? Our baby REFUSED to sleep on her back. After consulting with the doctor, we put her on her side, pushed up against the side of the cradle, and with a blanket rolled next to her. It was a miracle. And if I was next to her reading, I'd let her sleep on her stomach. Again, total miracle.

Another thing: does she have the same clothes/blanket as at daycare? Around that age my daughter got interested in textures and seemed to prefer some over others.

Final thing: have you asked the daycare workers if they have any tricks? Is it possible that he is used to some routine that they haven't told you about (or don't even realize they are doing)?

good luck; it gets better.
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:14 AM on January 11, 2011

Seconding baths. I swear my kids are part frog and baths were their favorite time, even the worst meltdown would end once the bath started. At that age I recommend filling up the kitchen sink with lots of bubbles and bath toys.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:18 AM on January 11, 2011

I wonder if maybe he is tired. At that age, sutel jr. was usually napping from about 3-4ish. I wouldn't pick her up from daycare until at least 4:30 because I didn't want to wake her up (or I would call at 4 and see what her awake/sleep status was). Maybe he is getting overtired by the time he gets home and even though you are putting him down for a nap, he is too tired to fall asleep.
posted by sutel at 8:56 AM on January 11, 2011

Hum. 5 months? My first thought was teeth. My kid gets upset when the gums hurt, but it seems to happen at night. During the day he's distracted by everything. In the evening, at home, he relaxes enough to realize 'Holy crap my gums hurt!' and gets upset. He's 19 months now so a lot of teeth are already in, but the first few (molars especially) were tough like this.

We threw him in the bath pretty much every day, he loved it and was happy to play in the water. We've cut it back to every other day or so now, because in the winter he gets dry skin and as much as he loves the bath it's too much, even with lotion afterwards. It's worth a shot.

Also, we read him to sleep every night. He likes it. I disagree that reading keeps the kids awake - it depends on how you read. Gentle rocking, low light, soft voice and he just snuggles in and listens until he gets sleepy, at which point he changes to a lying position, pulls the blanket up over his face and drifts off. I keep reading until he's definitely out. Oddly he seems to be as happy with Kipling as he is with Mo Willems...
posted by caution live frogs at 9:11 AM on January 11, 2011

Dad here. Aside from the above, have you tried wearing the kiddo in a sling or carrier? And/or a change of scenery? Sometimes when my 18 month old is super cranky I stick her in the ergo carrier and go for a walk - that always works for us.
posted by gnutron at 9:13 AM on January 11, 2011

My first thought was that the baby might be overtired and this is his way of letting it out. How much does he nap at daycare? Are they good quality naps? We find with Baby Leezie that the crappier his afternoon nap, the crankier he is during the 6-7 pm period. We also adjust his bedtime accordingly.

If you haven't, check out Weissbluth's Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child. They really emphasize making sure the kid has a full sleep tank for this time period so that the Witching Hour doesn't occur.

Best of luck!
posted by Leezie at 9:14 AM on January 11, 2011

Maybe playmat time is over-stimulating him when he is already tired? Try skipping the playmat and going straight for the nap. Or as someone suggested above, if you think he's not actually tired, go straight to dinner prep while baby watches from high chair. Or the walk in a stroller or baby carrier if he is over-tired.

I think its impossible for us to guess what will fix it, but definitely try changing the routine and see if this helps.
posted by Joh at 9:18 AM on January 11, 2011

Another vote for overstimulated. Daycare can do that. Don't try too hard to entertain him, just choose a soothing activity (or non-activity, if you will). It took me a long time to figure out my daughter was overstimulated after a full day at daycare, so I did too many things to try to help her during the witching hour. She didn't want to hear me sing, read/talk, play with her, look at my face, etc. If I had it to do over, I'd probaby go with white noise or none, and just hold her and let her stare at familiar surroundings. Any of the soothing distractions listed above would be good to try - just be prepared for baby to change the rules every week. Good luck!
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:18 AM on January 11, 2011

Friends of mine had good luck with a white noise generator. It soothed the baby right down (potential bad side effect: your child may grow up to be a noise artist leading to a lifetime of forcing out smiles as your progeny plays an instrument made out of electrodes, vintage soup cans and a dead goldfish).
posted by Kattullus at 9:36 AM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and you can test it out with this.
posted by Kattullus at 9:38 AM on January 11, 2011

My daughter would do this, for up to three or four hours at a time. Sometimes she could be calmed by my husband putting her on his arm tummy-down, holding her tiny arm in front of her, and flying her around the house singing the theme song from Superman. Literally nothing else worked.

Our pediatrician said that it was just that she was having trouble with the transition from day to evening. (I was at home with her.) She still does have a very rough time with transitions, so this seems likely. My mother described it "Poor little thing doesn't know if she's comin' or goin'." She wasn't hungry, she wasn't tired -- or if she was, she certainly would not go to sleep -- she wasn't bored, she wasn't overstimulated, she was just pissed off.

Ultimately, the only thing we could do was to buy really, really good earplugs (I recommend going to a shooting range and asking there*), put them in, swaddle her, and hold her close while watching reality TV with the closed-captioning turned on. Sometimes, the baby is just pissy, it's nothing you did, it's nothing you can fix, you just have to let her know that it's OK to be sad and that you're here.

*When you do this, be sure to say something like "Where do you keep your earplugs?" or "I'm interested in learning more about hearing protection." Do not, as I did, say "I need something to help me cope with a screaming baby" while you are surrounded by purchasable firearms.
posted by KathrynT at 10:14 AM on January 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

Earplugs are a great idea. I've also had success with earphones. Whatever keeps you sane.

All of SLC_Mom's tips are great, in fact!

This sounds really tough on you. I'm sorry.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:18 AM on January 11, 2011

Walking outside helped us IMMENSELY.
posted by oh really at 11:26 AM on January 11, 2011

I didn’t read through all the posts by other and I am not sure if this helps but maybe something to think about.

Apparently when I was a baby I also had this same issue. Every day between 1:30 and 2:30 (according to my mother and baby sitter, like clockwork) I’d have a flip-out session. Screaming, flailing, tantrum, etc. (I am now 30)

They also went through the same process with doctors, etc and never really claim to a hard conclusion but it was later found that it had to do when I was eating and/or what I was eating. They suspected some sort of indigestion, stomach ache, etc.
I don’t know the specifics but I know they altered when I ate and what I ate until they found a combination that was more tolerable and eventually they stopped.

My baby sitter talks about those “freakouts” still to this day!  Good luck!
posted by lutzla23 at 11:48 AM on January 11, 2011

The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp, M.D. was a life saver for me. He talks about the 5 S's for calming down a baby:

Swinging (in a swing or in your arms)
Stomach or Side position (in your arms or lying down)
Sshhhing (or white noise of some kind)

Try one or another or all of them in combination and usually somehow these will get a baby to calm down.
posted by wwartorff at 1:55 PM on January 11, 2011

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