Typical toddler behavior and ADHD symptoms tend to overlap. Even if your toddler has ADHD, they might not get a diagnosis until they’re older.
If your toddler has trouble staying still, paying attention, or waiting their turn, they are showing behaviors that are expected for their age.
However, it could also be possible your child is showing early signs of ADHD.
Some children are born with a tendency to develop ADHD, but caregivers often won’t suspect the condition until the child is in elementary school.
In fact, behaviors that are typical of ADHD, like impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity, are a normal part of child development. They’re common in preschool-age children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
The difference between children who do not have ADHD and those who do often becomes apparent only as children grow out of toddlerhood and start school. Those with ADHD have more difficulty managing their behaviors as they get older.
For this reason, healthcare professionals tend to diagnose ADHD when a child is elementary school-age or older.
If you want more information about ADHD in children and teens specifically, you might find this article more helpful.
Toddlers are children between the ages of 1 and 3 years, according to the AAP.
Since ADHD is a condition you’re typically born with, it’s possible for toddlers to have ADHD even if they’re young.
While some children do receive an ADHD diagnosis before they’re 4 years old, this isn’t common.
The AAP has published guidelines for pediatricians on how to diagnose and treat ADHD in children of preschool age (4 to 6 years old) and older. It does not have guidelines geared toward younger children.
About 11% of U.S. children 4 to 17 years old are living with symptoms of ADHD.
But according to some
Early signs of ADHD generally include inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
Here are some examples of how these symptoms may appear in toddlers:
- Their behavior seems disruptive or inappropriate for their age.
- Your daycare provider has noted that your child’s behavior is often disruptive.
- It often seems like they aren’t listening or paying attention.
- They frequently squirm in their chair or fidget with their hands or feet.
- They run or climb excessively.
- Caregivers or early childhood educators identified that your child may need special education, which can be associated with having ADHD.
Healthcare professionals diagnose ADHD according to criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
The DMS-5 distinguishes between three types of ADHD, and each type is associated with its own set of symptoms.
In toddlers, symptoms of inattentive ADHD might look like:
- being forgetful
- being easily distracted
- not listening when you talk to them
- having difficulty paying attention compared to peers
Symptoms of hyperactive-impulsive ADHD in toddlers could include:
- having trouble playing quietly
- fidgeting more than peers
- having a harder time taking turns
- being more energetic or moving more compared to peers
A child with combined ADHD will have symptoms of both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive ADHD.
It’s important to note that your child may show these symptoms but not have ADHD. Many symptoms of ADHD are typical toddler behavior. If you’re concerned, a good first step is talking with a healthcare professional.
Children with other conditions could show some of the same signs and symptoms as those with ADHD, according to the
These other conditions include:
- sleep disorders
- hearing issues
- vision problems
- certain learning disorders
Autistic children may also have some features that overlap with ADHD symptoms.
Your healthcare professional will likely ask you questions and perform assessments to help rule these out before diagnosing ADHD in your child.
The AAP doesn’t have guidelines for treating ADHD in children 3 years old and younger. Treatments for this age group are also somewhat controversial.
A 2014 report by the CDC estimated that
The CDC only recommends using medication for ADHD in young children if other methods, such as behavioral therapy, aren’t effective. It also says the side effects of medication can be more serious for young children than for older people with ADHD.
According to the
Though there are no official AAP guidelines on how to treat ADHD in toddlers, here are the treatments the AAP recommends for children ages 4 to 6 years who have ADHD:
- Behavior therapy. This is the first line of treatment the CDC recommends for younger children. In behavior therapy, the caregiver learns skills from a therapist to help the child manage behavior, like positive reinforcement and consistent discipline.
- Methylphenidate (Ritalin). Your healthcare professional might recommend this medication if the behavioral methods above don’t help and your child is still experiencing significant issues.
If you think your toddler may have ADHD, you can make a list of what signs you see, how often you notice them, and in what contexts. Then, you can share this information with your healthcare professional.
This person could be a psychologist, psychiatrist, or a pediatrician.
They may ask for more information, such as how your child behaves in different settings (like at home and at daycare). It will likely take more than one session and multiple questions to assess whether an ADHD diagnosis is the right fit.
Children are also more likely to receive an early diagnosis if they have severe ADHD, according to a
Helping your child get treatment for ADHD as early in life as possible may help reduce any negative effects the condition could have.
- academic problems
- difficulty in social settings and at work
- personality disorders
- antisocial behaviors
- substance use disorder
Some people with ADHD report feeling stigmatized by their ADHD diagnosis.
Still, other people with ADHD have reported that the extra attention they received from parents and teachers to help them manage the condition helped them build confidence.
If your toddler has ADHD, one first step might be setting aside time to learn specific behavior therapy techniques from a qualified therapist.
Healthcare professionals recommend behavior therapy as the first treatment young children with ADHD should receive, and experts believe this therapy is most effective when it comes from parents.
A few key tips for helping your child manage ADHD include:
- telling them your expectations simply and clearly
- making sure they get lots of exercise, which will help them concentrate and sleep better
- creating a routine and sticking with it
The U.S. Department of Education offers specific techniques for teachers that you could also apply at home, making sure you adapt them to your toddler’s developmental level. These include:
- praising your child when they start or complete an activity you asked them to do
- being specific, telling them exactly what they did well
- praising them right after they complete the action
- being genuine when offering praise and encouragement
- using visual prompts to remind your toddler about your expectations (such as using simple hand signals with your words)
- giving your child physical rewards for engaging in the right behavior (like a toy or sticker)
And if you’re looking for more tips on parenting a child with ADHD, you can find them here.
If you think your toddler has ADHD, there are many ways you can support them at home and at daycare or preschool.
The first step is often speaking with a healthcare professional to see if your child fits the diagnostic criteria for ADHD.
If your child receives an ADHD diagnosis, it could help to learn behavior therapy techniques you can use every day at home with them. Research shows that behavior therapy from a parent can have the biggest benefits.
Here are some resources to help you learn more and take next steps:
- CHADD offers information and advice for parents of preschool-age children who may have ADHD.
- CHADD also offers training courses for parents and caregivers of children with ADHD. They offer these in person and online via self-paced online courses or webinars.