ADHD in Toddlers

Toddler with ADHD on computer

Learn how to identify signs of ADHD in toddlers and ways to deal with challenging behavior, such as temper tantrums, toddler biting and hitting. Younger kids are learning so many new things about the world and their environment, which can often cause distracted behavior.

Depending on toddler speech development, this will definitely influence whether your child has temper tantrums, selective attention, difficulty follow directions and/or poor listening skills.

It is also important to be sure your child is getting the recommended sleep for his/her age, because toddler sleep problems will definitely cause ADHD symptoms. My son had terrible hyperactivity and impulsivity when he was younger due to sleep difficulties. Once we solved those, a lot of his challenges decreased. Lack of sleep limits attention and memory capabilities and also causes hyperactivity.

A child that is overtired will get a second wind from the body’s release of cortisol and then display “wired," hyperactive behavior as a result appearing as though he/she may have ADHD. Sleep is so important especially at this young age.

Toddler milestones for talking indicate:  

  • Children aged 12-18 months old should have around 20 words that they might be able to say and understand.
  • Around 24 months old, a child will understand around 200 words.
  • Between ages 2 and 3, a child’s vocabulary will grow up to 300 words and a child may understand up to 900 words.

The number of words will vary between children, but boys tend to acquire language later than girls and are often too busy to learn language concepts. So, while it may appear the there are symptoms of ADHD in toddlers, one possibility is that it may actually be more related to a delay in understanding speech. If a child doesn’t fully understand what is being said, then his/her listening skills will be delayed as well.

Imagine going to a foreign country after only spending a year studying the language. Most would probably only understand a couple words per sentence. Then taking into consideration the speed that a person typically speaks, you would have to register the meaning of what is being said very quickly. As a result, you might just choose not to pay attention because it's too difficult to comprehend.

Another possibility may be that the child is having difficulties with sensory processing. One subtype of sensory processing disorder (SPD) is referred to as sensory seeking. It's symptoms can be very similar to those of ADHD. However, the causes of the two disorders are very different and therefore ADHD treatment is typically very different than SPD treatment.

Tips to remember: 

  • Simple short sentences work best with toddlers.
  • Make sure a toddler follows a nutritious and healthy diet to limit symptoms of ADHD.
  • Follow a routine schedule so he/she knows what to expect.
  • Temper tantrums are normal during the toddler years and do not indicate symptoms of ADHD. Simply follow the tips provided by clicking on the temper tantrum link at the top of the page and always try to be consistent.

Diagnosing ADHD in toddlers is not usually common because developmentally, toddlers are in a stage that requires exploration and excitement in the world around them. As a result they may appear hyperactive and have difficulties paying attention because of the overload in sensory stimulation.

Once a child is approximately 4 or 5 years old I think it is easier to determine whether there are more valid attention and hyperactive symptoms. It’s possible that a child may have shown symptoms of ADHD in toddler years, but because of these other factors, children are not typically diagnosed with ADHD during this time.

Return to ADHD Symptoms page


Baby Center. Toddler Milestone:Talking. 3-15-10.