How to calm a crying baby

Here’s how to make it through bub’s ‘arsenic hour’

child-health consultant / April 05 2023

For the first eight to 12 weeks, most babies experience periods of unsettled behaviour every day, almost like clockwork. This time of day has been dubbed ‘arsenic hour’ – although the word ‘hour’ is used very loosely, as this often-stressful period can last up to four or five hours!

It usually begins after your baby’s first growth spurt, at around two-and-a-half to three weeks, with bub becoming grizzly and even inconsolable at a regular time. Arsenic hours often strikes at around three or four in the afternoon and can last up until bub settles down for the night. Thankfully, they tend to stop at around 12 weeks, when bub’s regular day and night rhythms are established.

The calm during the storm
The cause of arsenic hours isn’t clearly understood, but they’re believed to have something to do with overstimulation of the sensory nervous system. Staying calm and relaxed while your baby is not is important for everyone involved, then. It’s completely normal for bubbas to cry, strain, groan, break eye contact, stiffen up and arch their backs during arsenic hours and you’ll be better able to cope with this by understanding and accepting that this behaviour is normal and not the result of something you have or haven’t done.

Parents tend to worry that ‘bad’ habits will form if bubs are given extra comforting during arsenic hours, but it’s important to calm and reassure newborns and remember that you aren’t spoiling your child by tending to his needs. Chronically overtired and overstimulated babies are particularly difficult to manage, developing poor patterns that make settling even harder. If bub does form an unwanted habit, it can be changed at a later time.

Settle, petal
Not all babies feel comforted by all settling techniques. Individual temperaments, the environment and the emotional state of the person comforting them all influence their ability to be soothed, so you’ll need to experiment to find what works best for your bub. And just like adults, all babies have different stress limits. If nothing works to calm bub down, crying may be your little one’s best stress release. Keep in mind that crying is your baby’s first form of communication – it’s not behaviour to control, but something to accept and support. Crying in itself is not harmful, but if you’re concerned that bub’s crying too much or seems to be in pain, have him checked out by a health professional.

Provide bub with reassurance by staying close and remaining calm. Swaddling also settles the nervous system, keeps limbs from flailing and escalating the upset and helps bub to feel secure, which is particularly important when he sleeps. Wearing your baby in a sling is another good idea as your warmth, familiar smell and heartbeat will all work to help soothe your child. It also leaves your arms free to prepare dinner or tend to other littlies!

Bub’s arsenic hour is also a good opportunity to take him for a calming stroll. Newborns are often happier held close in a sling when you’re out walking, but if yours enjoys the pram use that, remembering that young babies usually settle better with the pram looking towards familiar faces as opposed to the big, wide and unfamiliar world.

Sound it out
If there’s a beach nearby, take your little one for a walk there – not only is the beach a great environment for you to unwind, the repetitive sound of the ocean may help bub to settle. Other forms of white noise are also helpful in blocking sudden noises that can startle bub and work him up. Use the washing machine, vacuum cleaner or iPhone apps or CDs with white-noise recordings to aid in soothing. In most cases, white noise is more effective when played at a loud volume.

Whether you sing off key or not, babies are also soothed by the rhythmical sound of poetry and song, so get crooning!

Sucking also soothes and calms, so try offering extra feeds or a dummy (if bub hasn’t already found his thumb!). You can also try gentle back rubs or pats while your baby lies across your knees, arms or over your shoulders. But while massage does induce calm, this doesn’t hold true if your littlie is already stressed – it’s best left performed when he’s happy, calm and ready to engage.

A deep, warm bath, on the other hand, is a great tactic for calming. Dim the lights or add calming aromatherapy oils for added relaxation. If your baby doesn’t enjoy his bath, the weight and warmth of a wet washer on his tummy can also help him get into the swing of things.

Hush, little baby
Above all, help bub during his arsenic hour by moving him away from anything that could lead to sensory overload: turn off the television and any music, turn the lights down or off or move him to a darkened room, avoid passing him to different people and try not to cram too much into his day. Avoiding eye contact when he’s trying to settle can be another good idea, as he’s probably trying to avoid yours.

Arsenic hours can be a difficult time for parents, so accept help when it’s offered and know it’s okay to ask for it if you need it.

If you’re at breaking point, keep bub safe by putting him in his cot and then go outside for a breath of fresh air. If things become too much for you to handle on your own, seek professional help and advice through your doctor, child health centre or organisations such as PANDA or beyondblue.

Hang in there and take comfort in knowing that it will stop.