My 2-year-old is extremely active and can’t seem to settle down and pay attention to anything. His daycare teacher said she thought he might have ADHD. Is that possible? Can toddlers have ADHD?
This is a great question. It’s also a tricky one. Many toddlers are active and impulsive. Some of them struggle with focus by nature. They move quickly from one activity to another. They have a hard time waiting, are messy, and don’t pay attention for more than a short period. In other words, they may show what people think of as ADHD symptoms when they’re just being toddlers.
That doesn’t mean toddlers can’t have ADHD, though. Some very young children are so hyperactive and impulsive that it causes safety concerns. Their extreme behaviors might also affect learning or relationships.
It’s really a matter of degree. Toddlers are often active. But toddlers with ADHD might be constantly on the go (and constantly talking). They might have trouble sitting for any activity for any amount of time. They might also have trouble settling down to sleep and be awake late into the night. Plus, they can have trouble interacting with others.
There are guidelines for what to do when kids show signs of ADHD. If the child is age 4 or older, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an evaluation for ADHD.
There are no guidelines for younger kids. But research studies show that toddlers are being diagnosed with ADHD in the United States.
While toddlers can have ADHD, it’s important to look for other possible causes of their ADHD-like symptoms. Kids with developmental delays often act younger than their age. Other causes include language difficulties, anxiety, and problems with hearing, vision, and sleep.
If you have any concerns about your toddler’s behavior, talk to your child’s health care provider. Before diagnosing ADHD, the provider should do a physical exam to check your child’s general health to rule out other conditions. That includes getting a full medical and developmental history.
It’s hard to know what to do when your child is struggling, especially at this age. I often tell families that it can help to work with a counselor or therapist who has experience in this area.
A trained therapist can help you better understand your toddler and learn strategies to use at home. Simple changes can make a big difference.
If you’re concerned that your toddler might have ADHD, developmental delays, or something else, you can look into getting an early intervention evaluation. Early intervention services can provide help before your toddler even gets to school.
Read what an expert looks for when evaluating preschoolers for ADHD.
About the author
About the author
Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.