toddler hyperactivity

Hyperactivity in Toddlers: Signs to Look for

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) is defined a neurologically based developmental disorder usually beginning in childhood. While both inattention and hyperactivity may be present in a child, ADD is characterized by an inability to focus or maintain attention, and ADHD is characterized by hyperactivity. ADHD and hyperactivity can appear in children as early as three years old. Here are a few tips for recognizing the early signs of ADHD in your toddler. 

What’s Normal?

Approaching 24 months, most children can maintain focus for up to a little over 5 minutes, although sounds are still often distracting. By 3- or 4-years-old, they can generally manage about 10 minutes of attention and alternate between tasks and an adult’s vocal interruptions. So, it is safe to say all toddlers have a very short attention span, by definition.

According to Dr. Greene (a respected pediatrician in the media), your little one is going to have some serious energy flowing through their veins for about a year during toddlerhood. While this is totally normal, it can look like ADHD to the untrained eye—especially if they went from a fairly calm baby to a whirlwind of a two-year-old!  Basically, virtually every child is going to display some hyperactivity; for example, toddlers often tend to have bursts of extreme energy when they get tired in an attempt to stay awake and avoid missing out on all the fun going on around them. 

Motor skills should be developing pretty well—jumping, throwing, and balancing may even be starting to work out for them. Frequent falling and obvious difficulty coordinating movement may be indicative of something awry. For children with ADHD, however, these hyperactive behaviors are going to be more severe, more frequent, and often interfere with school and social functioning. But the most important thing to remember is that every child develops at their own pace; comparing your toddler to other kids isn’t the best way to figure out if your little one is on par. 

Why Early Diagnosis is So Important

Catching ADHD early on can make a profound difference in your toddler’s ability to function in later years. The earlier you begin to help them learn interventive behaviors, the more successful these alternative behaviors will be. Additionally, it can save them years of fighting to feel normal, do well in school, and have successful relationships. The Director of Neuropsychology at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Dr. Mark Mahone, provides a variety of hyperactivity and inattentiveness signs to keep an eye out for in 3 and 4-year-old children for early diagnosis and intervention. 

Signs of ADD/ADHD

Children struggling with ADHD, by definition, may avoid or express distaste for activities that require their attention for more than a couple of minutes. If they do start an activity requiring more than about two minutes of their time, most likely they’ll abandon the task at that point and move on to something new. Vocally, these children tend to be much more talkative and make more noise than other children their age; they may make friends with strangers more quickly than normal, but behave more aggressively towards other children during play. 

Hyperactive children tend to engage in activities despite specific instructions to the contrary; they may be frequently climbing and running, often leading to getting injured more often than most children their age. This is, in part, because of a certain fearlessness these children possess, which leads them into trouble or danger. Children with ADD/ADHD in preschool may also have difficulty hopping on one foot by 4 years old. 

Additionally, these children are very nearly constantly restless. The medical definition of restlessness can manifest itself as a difficulty to sit or stand still, frequently jiggling legs, tapping fingers, or other sign of pent up energy, and expressing a need to get up almost as soon as they have taken a seat. It isn’t that they don’t want to follow the rules and pay attention, it’s that, on a neurological level, their brains simply won’t allow it. These symptoms should be ongoing for at least six months and be so severe as to interfere with normal functioning and be abnormal for your child’s developmental level. If you’re concerned about your child’s behavior, speak to a pediatrician or psychologist about what steps you can take.

Last Updated: February 10, 2017