Coping with three children under five

All last year I had three children under five. And no help. I must have been mad.

This year I have three children under six. And none of them in school. I should probably be certified.

Emily e-mailed me and asked me how I coped with three children under five. Emily, if you still plan on having that third child, LOOK AWAY NOW. It could get nasty.

Coping with three children under five is very hard work, I won’t kid you. But I’m also not the only mother to, rather foolishly, get pregnant so many times so quickly. So, you know, most of the time I just get on with it. That’s the trouble with three under five: there’s not really time to sit down and reflect on the foolishness of my actions. From dawn you are up with the baby, even though you haven’t really been asleep, at all, through the night. His nappy has probably leaked – if you’re lucky it’s just wee and you can just whip all the wet clothes off the miserably cold baby and redress (hopefully ignoring the fact that there are no clean clothes because you didn’t have time to do the laundry yesterday because you were busy changing him ten times), if you’re unlucky it’s the other and the whole baby-and-clothes ensemble requires washing (if pressed for time, I’ve been known to do this under the running bath tap) – the toddler needs dressing because he is too tired to do it himself, even though he has been asleep for the last twelve hours (and the thought of twelve hours sleep makes you giddy with longing), the preschooler is on strike because the clothes you have put out are ‘not cool enough’ and thus the day begins.

Preschool mornings are always fun because there’s the added joy of having to get everyone dressed, fed, into the car, and going somewhere by a set time. My rule is this: I never, ever, go out without make-up (the only day since Ben was born that I have been out without make-up was the day after my dog died and that’s only because no amount of slap would have made me look any better with all that crying). This only happens without fail every day because of the Three Under Five Rule which states that at least once every single morning in my house, all three children will be crying simultaneously, which in turn means I can ignore them all so as not to show any favouritism, and instead I can make myself look presentable. Some days I only get as far as deoderant, hairbrushing and lipstick but it always counts as a victory. Who said mothers had to aim low?

To cope with three small children I have learnt to perfect the art of slacker-parenting. This has been hard given my Type-A tendencies but it was either that or lose my mind a bit more than I already had. Although hardly worthy of parent hacks, here nevertheless are my top ten tips (and I use the word ‘tip’ very loosely):

1) use clean dishes from the dishwasher during the day until it is nearly empty then there is less to unload before restacking it. If, like me, you can’t bear the thought of all those dirty dishes on the side all day, pretend they are a statement about your lack of interest in domestic issues in favour of superior parenting skills.

2) I do three loads of laundry everyday. I would willingly pay someone to do this full time for me. If I haven’t got time to put the children’s clean clothes away I put them on top of their dresser and use them from there. I tumble dry everything I can, which doesn’t sit well with my environmental principles but, you know, the sanity and everything. When my washing machine broke down for three weeks after the baby was born, I realised how much washing I could get away without doing. The children’s clothes always look dirty once breakfast is over anyway.

3) small children do not need a bath everyday. If I thought it would help, I might not actually bath them for an entire week but it so happens that bathtime is one of the few times each day when they are happy, contained and not fighting so I haven’t implemented the only-one-bath-a-week-is-necessary rule yet. In the summer when there is more skin contact with mud and sand, I get the children to clean off in the paddling pool before supper and then I use a baby wipe on dirty feet at bedtime.

4) at least once every week we get a clear plastic bag (snip small holes in the bottom because inevitably one child will put it over their head) and go out on a nature walk. We put things we find (obviously I’m thinking twigs, leaves and moss rather than litter or used condoms) in the bags, bring them back an hour or two later and spend another hour or two sticking them in books, coloring them, painting them, photographing them or ripping them to tiny pieces all over the kitchen floor. My children love this and they never seem to get bored of it. With any luck the baby will sleep the entire way. And hopefully everyone will sleep the entire night with exhaustion.

5) leftovers, batches of frozen food, slow-cooker recipes and a breadmaker all make life easier. My worst nightmare involves a cranky baby at five o’clock and no idea what to cook for supper. Macaroni cheese, spaghetti bolognese, baby curry, fish fingers, good quality organic chicken nuggets and frozen veg are always in my freezer for days when proper cooking is beyond me. Fresh fruit, yoghurts, good quality vanilla custard or ice cream, fromage frais, frozen berries, tinned fruit and brioche are instant puddings.

6) my three concessions to having small children are employing a cleaner two hours a week to clean the visible parts of the house (dusting, vacuuming, bathrooms), tumble drying all my laundry and having my groceries delivered. I figure these are cheaper than paying for childcare. And definitely cheaper than therapy.

7) half an hour before suppertime the children get ‘golden time’ or ‘special play time’. They can do whatever they want which generally means watch a DVD, play on the computer or play playstation – things they are not normally allowed to do during the day. Before they get to do it though they have to tidy up all their toys. So by suppertime I have a tidy house and two quiet, occupied children while I cook. If they behave well during the day they can gain five minutes of playtime. If they do something naughty (hitting, kicking and so on) they lose five minutes of playtime.

eight) create a supper club. Take turns to entertain as many children for supper as you can – you’re cooking anyway, right? You get a night off when it is not your turn. And with any luck your host will crack open a bottle of wine and you won’t care about the ear-splitting noise from so many children in one house at the witching hour.

9) have a night-time survival kit. In each child’s room have a drink, a sick bowl, a box of tissues, nappies, wipes, and a clean set of pyjamas and sheets. When they were a bit younger my children had two sets of sheets including waterproof undersheets on their beds and a spare duvet in their dresser to save everyone stumbling about semi-conscious in the dark if sheets needed changing.

10) invest in a visible alarm clock. We have this Bunny Alarm Clock (edited: not available at this link anymore. We now have this equally good Gro-Clock Sleep Trainer). Bribe or threaten your preschooler to stay in bed until the bunny is awake. Nothing worse than getting the baby back to sleep after being awake half the night and then being woken twenty minutes later by your bright, bouncing three or four year old. This worked well for us until a few months ago but nothing seems to keep my older two in bed these days, possibly because they are sharing a room and there is too much incentive to wake up when your partner in crime is sleeping in the next bed.

And my final top tip? Blog or surf the internet while you feed the baby. I suggest you come here and read about my lack of domestic and parenting skills and you will feel instantly like you are coping better than me.

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70 thoughts on “Coping with three children under five

  1. Tanya

    Wow this is so inspiring. I have 3 boys 3 1/2 , 2 and 2 months.
    Looks like I am not alone. The constant feeling of failure is haunting me. As though even though I do a lot I could do so much more . Thx for the tipd very helpful.

  2. Jess

    I have three under 5, – and its not necessarily the “failure” feeling – more that I just can’t figure out what to do about these kids FIGHTING over everything! The 4 and 2 year old are just at each other all of the time. The 2 year old wants to play with the 4 yr old. The 4 year old wants to boss, but is terrible at constructive direction, he gets all worked up and cries, gets angry…. she 2 year old, gets mad at his anger and punches or hits him. He hits back – and this occurs 30 times a day. But they WANT to pay together.

    So I deal with that while I have my 3 month old baby with me. I have a part time nanny who helps when I have to go get my preschooler (Junior Kindergarten), or get a job done (I do part time work as a commissioned artist) and so she helps with basic cleanliness and babysitting 3-4 hours a day. You’d be surprised how quickly she leaves, it seems. I still have the kids otherwise and I can’t seem to STILL get anything constructive done. My anxiety level is going up. My son, the oldest, constantly wants some special treatment with no other siblings. Just mom or dad. And … oMG I could go on forever about this.

    So ….. I am hoping that I am not alone. This cold 6-month long winter where I am living now is compounding this issue. I usually go outside and do all sorts of things with them but I’m not dragging them with an infant into -20 weather. WE are all going so crazy.

  3. Angela

    I just had number 3 two weeks ago so technically I’m still in the “rest and recover” period. My last day with another grownup to help was Tuesday. It’s Friday. I am so overwhelmed.

    Wednesday night, my husband had a meeting and wasn’t home to help me.

    Last night, my husband had a meeting and wasn’t home to help me.

    The house is a crazy mess. I refer to it as Type A Personality Hell. I meant to clean it up a little last night after the kids went to bed (I didn’t have the energy to get the big kids to help clean, since the 6 year old was sick all day and the 2 year old is defiant lately). Of course after the two year old FINALLY stopped screaming over shadows and her brother hogging the books and the baby FINALLY stopped fussing and fell asleep, I was just too tired to clean up.

    So I woke up to a mess house. Strike one. I had a least two crying while I showered (I don’t drink coffee so I NEVER miss a shower) and I haven’t been able to shave in three days which really bothers me. Strike two. And the cereal was almost gone and the milk is gone now so I don’t actually get any breakfast until groceries are delivered at ten am. Strike three.

    So overwhelmed right now… But I very much enjoyed reading your blog post while nursing the baby. I actually giggled when I got to the part about surfing the web while nursing to make yourself feel better. :)

    1. Anonymous

      hi i have two twins under three this is my se ond time round in bring up a family my two are my grandchildren and believe me things have change since i raised my own two children as a single mum i shocked how how smart small children are one sneaks he tea under the table and the other try to put it up her slve if they dont like it so i have to find way andyes i used to sleep in to about 730 but my life have change i now up at 530 am with dirty nappy where my coffee my mind is wonting

  4. Karene

    Hi there… I have three under five as well and I just wanted to ask you if you can break down how you do three loads of laundry, wash and fold, right?… I can barely do one load and get it through the dryer and actually folded and put it in their baskets as my toddler requires lots of attention he’s a very busy body and I’m just plain exhausted, all the five-month-old is nursing constantly still… And trying to get reading time in for all my children… Thank you so much!!!

    Mommy of boys 5,3, and 5mo girl :)

    1. Ella Post author

      Hi Karene, I don’t have a magic solution for the laundry, there is usually one load washing, one in the dryer or hanging on the line and one being folded at some point in the day and being taken up to the children’s rooms. Sometimes the dry, folded laundry sits downstairs for several days until somebody needs something or I get a moment at the weekend to put it all away. I usually hang or fold a few items while food is cooking or the children are eating as I can do that in the kitchen.

      Reading time is difficult for me too, if pushed for time I read to them all together. Most days we eat as early as possible and then I try to do bathtime and reading for each of them but it doesn’t always work out that way!

      1. Lynsey

        I do the whole laundry thing too but end up throwing it on the bed and by night time just hang everything up on a hanger. Much quicker. Don’t have the time for dinner, takeaway works

  5. Alyse

    Thank you for writing this!!!
    -mama of two girls 4 & 3 (11 months apart who battle each other all day long) and my little boy just turned 1 who loves pinching, biting and pulling hair every day :)

    1. Anonymous

      Hi alyse, im in the same boat. I have two girls, 4 & 2, and a biy who is 14mnths. I feel like I’m going mad. The girls are constantly fighting and now my son won’t speep in his bed unless I’m in the room laying on the floor near his bed. Most of the time i fall asleep amd wake up with my whole body aching. I can’t seem to cope with all the yelling and crying amd feel so relieved once they are all asleep. I do get my house work all done but sometimes go to sleep with the dishes to be washed. I prepare lunch after breakfast while the kids play out the back or watch tv. I feel like I’m going mad because these kids mess from one room to the other and i find I can’t seem to have the house clean 100% till they are all asleep.

  6. Crystal Fluharty

    Hi I am a stay at home mommy to a 4 1/2 year old son and TWIN 2 1/2 boys. I love your post. I am currently working on an article for my blog about tips and tricks to surviving the toddler years. (My main focus will be raising more than one). I would love for you to share some of your tips and tricks or share your link on my page when I write up the article. You can reach me at or

    P.s. thank you for sharing your story for us all to read. So inspirational to read others who have the same situations stories.

  7. stacey mathias

    I have daughter who is 2 another who is 1 and a son who is 9 months plus a husband who is epileptic, are house is chaos and they push me to my limits we just try to worryabout the important things and let the little things slide x

  8. Sarah

    You’re so funny and full of great ideas. I just had number 2 and am working on daddy for number 3. Luckily number 1 is 5 so things won’t be (quite) so hectic.

  9. Anonymous

    I was so happy to find something on handling three children under five. Just what I was looking for but had doubts. I have three children but the eldest is in school but but other two r under five and then three days a week I had my nephew whose 2.5. I work days and my husband works nights. On days I have my nephew the kids r up by 0630 running screaming playing across the house. I drive myself batty trying to get them to stay quiet while my husband sleeps. Right now my house is fairly clean the thing that gets me is the rooms. I could clean them but I’m tired from the night before and it’s cold to b outside.. Last time I did they all got sick. So I’m stuck in the house with crazy loud children.. I don’t date take to town on my own. Reading what u ladies do daily inspire me to keep on trucking. Cause heck I don’t even apply makeup but need coffee and steal a shower. This help me to stay positive be patient and get creative. I can’t complain too much if I sit and moan about it verses changing things up. Thanks…..anonymous Wa


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