No need to check your calendar.  It’s not October (yet!).  The “witching hour” I’m thinking of happens on a daily basis.  Oh, what a relief it would be if, like Halloween, it only came once a year!

Many parents notice that from roughly 4 to 5 pm, every day is a difficult time for their children. This rough spot in the day seems to affect children from newborns on up to adolescence.  To be honest, it’s the one time of the day that takes me to the brink of absolutely losing it.

What is the witching hour?

This hour that rocks and rolls in all the wrong ways, every day, is usually marked by some universal characteristics. In newborns and babies, it may be an extended time of crying or fussing, or perhaps a need for more feeding sessions than usual.  For toddlers and preschoolers, this stretch of the day might bring about clinginess, crankiness, and meltdowns.  For older children, there may be an increased incidence in sibling warfare or grouchiness.

How can we bring peace to the witching hour?

Photo by THOR

I am certainly not an expert at navigating this challenging time; in fact, the only advice I have to share is that which has been passed on to me by other wise parents!  Here is what I find works best in our home:

1. Adjust expectations

The single most important solution I have found is to make sure I’ve managed my own expectations of what we are capable of in the late afternoons.  For example, I avoid running errands or engaging in social settings during this time.  Though I don’t understand what causes it, I do fully understand that it is a rough time  of the day for my children.  I try to respect that they need the comfort and familiarity of home during this time each day and make plans for us to be at home in the late afternoons.

It has helped tremendously for me to recognize that my children are going to need me for lots of hands-on, interactive parenting at this point in each day.  If my plans for dinner involve complicated preparation, I try to get most of that done earlier in the day.  I keep phone calls short, and I have chosen to cut out screen time for myself from around 3:30 until after dinner.

I find that our afternoons are the most peaceful when I decide ahead of time to be deliberately and thoughtfully engaged in parenting during the witching hour.

2. Stimulate the senses

Photo by SortaCrunchy

When I shared with friends that I was struggling with working with my girls through the late afternoons, one friend suggested to me that I involve some sensory stimulating activities into that time of the day.  This works wonders!  Sensory play must somehow distract them from whatever is happening within that causes so much external disruption.

Here are some suggestions to inspire witching hour play:

  • Go for a walk (babies in particular seem to love this)
  • Work on a nature collection
  • Give them a bath
  • Play with play dough
  • Finger paint
  • Dance
  • Sing
  • Snuggle up and read stories
  • Play tag
  • Have a small, healthy snack

3. Close the gap

A few weeks ago, I wrote on my personal blog about how I’ve been learning to counteract my impulse to yell at my children by whispering to them when I feel myself getting angry and frustrated.

My friend Caitlin said something in the comments on that post that struck me as really profound.  She wrote, “Because yelling doesn’t work.  It only serves to widen the gap between me and my babies.”

I thought about that for a long time, particularly because it presents such an accurate picture of the formidable task of calmly and gently parenting our children through the rough spots in each day.  To be very honest with you, what I would really like to do during the witching hour is go into my bedroom, close the door, and hide.  That stretch of our day creates a monumental gap between me and them if I am not careful to intentionally close it.

Though it’s not easy, I have a responsibility each day to draw them close and show them that they can trust me to be calm in the midst of their storms.  I find it helps to keep them physically near me because that close proximity is a great reminder to keep closing that gap.

Don’t we, even as adults, have moments each day when we don’t feel quite right? Of course, the systems within our bodies have developed and matured to be able to cope with these off times, so I am more fully equipped to hold their hands as we navigate these choppy waters.  I hope that as my children grow into adulthood, they’ll be able to look back on the late afternoons we shared together with fond memories of gentle distractions rather than remembering anyone taking flight on a broom.

How have you been able to find peace in the witching hour?  What solutions bring calm to your family in the late afternoons?

This post was originally published on September 8, 2010.