Doctors’ Notes


Surviving the 4 O’Clock Witching Hour

It’s 4pm. Maybe you just got the kids off the bus, or they’re waking up from naps. You have a vague sense that you should be thinking up something for dinner.

Energy levels aren’t at their highest, and maybe you’re just hoping to make it to bedtime, or until your spouse comes home. (We’ve all been there). Siblings who had played nicely earlier in the day are suddenly mortal enemies. Babies are fussy. Backpacks, folders, and unfinished homework clutter the floor. Everyone is hungry, and probably crying.

4clockIt’s officially The Witching Hour.

From infancy through elementary school — and beyond? someone please tell me this ends! — the late afternoon through evening can be a stressful time in many households.  It can feel like the energy in the house just takes a nose dive and there just isn’t enough of you to go around. Things need to get done (homework, dinner prep), but the children seem to really need some extra attention then, too. How to cope?

We certainly have plenty of days when I can’t manage to do anything creative or intentional during those times and we just muddle through. But, in no particular order, here are some suggestions you might find helpful. I’ve tried most of them at one time or another, if not always consistently. You may find them helpful. And I’d love to hear what you do to cope with those difficult hours!

For me, the time before dinner has always been the hardest — as opposed to after they are fed and we’re careening toward bedtime — so most of the suggestions will pertain to that period.

Wear the Baby.

Whether you have one or multiple kids, having hands free at this time of day can be key. Another alternative is to crank up that baby swing.

Prep or Plan Dinner Ahead of Time.

When I am able to do this, it makes a world of difference.

Plan for Healthy Snacks. 

My kids always come in from school starving, but I don’t want them to fill up on snacks and not be hungry for dinner. Again, the key is planning. Put a bunch of fruits and veggies out on the table before they even come in the door.

Involve the Kids in Dinner Prep. 

Think about giving each child a turn helping you cook or set the table. I find when kids have a job they tend to fight with each other less!

Water Play.

Let one of the kids stand at the sink and play in the water with plastic bowls, cups, utensils, dish soap and a straw to blow bubbles with. In my experience, it’s usually best to limit this to one child at a time, unless you want a water fight breaking out!


This might be a good time to get out the crayons, paper, or play doh if you can stomach cleaning up the mess at this time of day.


It can really change the mood. Put on something soothing, or maybe a book on tape, to engage little minds (and introduce some quiet..). Or something happy to start a dance party

Engage About Their Day.

As you can, take the time to talk with your children about their day. If you find the pattern is that everyone talks at once, consider taking one child at a time aside for even 10-15 minutes (while the rest are snacking, perhaps?) to hear the highs and lows of their day. That one-on-one connection right after school can be really helpful and set the tone for the rest of the day and night.

With older children, talk to them at another time of day about what the family can do to make the time more peaceful. Get their input and buy-in if patterns need to be changed.

Reserve Certain Toys/Games.

Special treats for that special time of day

While we’re on the subject of special treats, and since I’m getting tired just thinking about doing the things on this list, I’ll add…

Screen Time.

Sometimes a little PBS or computer game really does the trick. Saving some screen time for this crazy time of day (maybe after homework is done?) is the very definition of a win-win.

Those are some of my best ideas and suggestions. What about you? What are your go-to strategies for making it through the tough times of day with your kids? I’d love to hear them in the comments below…

Dr. Amy Maddalena, a Kids Plus Doc since 2006, teaches The Fussy Baby Class and hosts a monthly Expectant Parent Orientation at our Pleasant Hills office.