Signs of ADHD in Toddlers

Mother and toddler daughter speak with others during a therapy support group meeting

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Attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a behavioral and developmental disorder that affects about 5%-7% of the population. Both children and adults can experience ADHD, but it isn’t typically diagnosed in children until the elementary school years. Still, symptoms of ADHD can begin to emerge as early as the toddler years, and parents often wonder if their young child may be showing signs of ADHD.

Symptoms of ADHD in toddlers may resemble behaviors that are normal for toddlers, such as an inability to focus, hyperactivity, and impulsive movements and behaviors. But in toddlers that may go on to be diagnosed with ADHD, these behaviors may be more noticeably intense and disruptive.

Read on for a more detailed breakdown of ADHD symptoms in toddlers, risk factors for ADHD, and answers to other common questions about ADHD in toddlers.

Signs and Symptoms

Toddlers can’t formally be diagnosed with ADHD. Formal diagnosis of ADHD usually happens once your child is elementary aged, or at least four years old. For this reason, it can be difficult to say for sure that certain toddler behaviors mean that your child has ADHD.

What’s more, many behaviors—like an inability to concentrate and pay attention, trouble following instructions, seeming impulsive, not being able to stay still—all can be normal for toddlers, and may eventually be outgrown.

At the same time, studies have found that certain symptoms may indicate that your toddler will eventually go on to be diagnosed with ADHD. Here’s what we know so far.

ADHD Symptoms in Babies

Some researchers believe that signs of ADHD may be seen early when your child is a baby.

For example, a study published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that language delays and motor skills delays in babies may be an early sign of ADHD.

It’s important to note that just because your baby has these delays, it doesn’t mean they will go on to have ADHD—just that there might be an association between the two for some children.

ADHD Symptoms in Toddlers

Toddlers and preschoolers who later become diagnosed with ADHD will have many of the same common symptoms that older children do. There are three symptoms that are considered the “core” symptoms of ADHD, and even toddlers may show signs of these:

Again, the confusing thing is that these symptoms are normal behaviors for toddlers and preschoolers, as many haven’t yet developed impulsive control or the ability to focus in the same way older children have. Most toddlers begin to outgrow these symptoms as they get close to kindergarten.  

Still, many parents of toddlers who later go on to be diagnosed with ADHD notice that their child seems notably less attentive, more impulsive, and more hyperactive than other children their age.

This may become apparent when your child plays with other kids their age, or when they enter a childcare or preschool setting and you are able to compare their behavior to other kids’ behavior.

For example, you may notice that your toddler:

  • Seems to daydream more than other children, and has trouble paying attention to conversations
  • Has difficulty following through with simple instructions, like going to get their shoes when it’s time to leave, even when you know they understand what the instructions mean
  • Has trouble settling down, even when it’s time to sit still, such as during meals
  • Seems to have a more active mind and body than other children: seems to be constantly talking, constantly moving
  • May have trouble respecting the personal space of others and may make impulsive movements with their body

Risk Factors for ADHD in Children

ADHD isn’t caused by bad parenting or something you did while pregnant. In fact, most experts believe it’s caused by factors that are out of your control, such as genetics.

Nevertheless, there are some risk factors that may make a toddler more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis down the road:

  • Having a birthing parent of advanced age
  • Having a birthing parent with fewer years of education
  • Having a family member with ADHD
  • Experiencing language and motor delays between 3 months and 18 months of age
  • Being born with a “difficult” temperament

Getting Your Toddler an ADHD Diagnosis

If you notice that your toddler's impulsive, inattentive, and hyperactive behavior continues even once they start elementary school, it might be time to seek a diagnosis. To do this, you would need to visit your pediatrician, who may refer you to a child development professional.

The earliest ADHD is diagnosed is usually at four years old, but it’s often not diagnosed till after elementary school. To be diagnosed with ADHD, your child must:

  • Have symptoms that occur in two or more settings (school, home, social settings)
  • Have at least 6 symptoms of ADHD
  • Have symptoms that impact your child’s ability to function normally at home, in school, and in social settings
  • Have symptoms that have lasted at least six months

Supporting Your Toddler's Needs

ADHD is a different neurotype from neurotypical. Children with the condition often face challenges related to their symptoms, but they also possess strengths as well. It is important to understand these challenges and find ways to manage them effectively, but it is just as important to help kids to recognize and effectively utilize their strengths by offering accommodations, support, and encouragement. 

Some ways you can support your toddler's development:

  • Develop routines and help your child stick to a schedule. Provide clear signals to help children transition between tasks.
  • Use praise and rewards to help encourage positive behaviors.
  • Build health habits such as getting adequate sleep and following a well-balanced, nutritious diet.
  • Make sure your child gets plenty of physical activity during the day. Staying active can help combat symptoms of hyperactivity and may help improve focus.
  • Spend time with your child. Model appropriate behaviors and use praise and encouragement to help your child develop good social skills. 
  • Request accommodations in school settings and talk to your child's teacher about ways to communicate with your child more effectively.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes ADHD in kids?

    Experts aren’t sure what causes ADHD in children, but most believe there is a genetic component, and that children with ADHD have differences in brain chemistry that make them more likely to exhibit symptoms.

  • When should I see a doctor about my toddler’s ADHD symptoms?

    Although your healthcare provider can’t formally diagnose your child with ADHD until the age of four, it’s a good idea to share any concerning symptoms you notice ASAP. This way, your healthcare provider will understand your child’s background, should the symptoms persist and an ADHD diagnosis becomes a consideration.

  • What will life be like if my toddler is eventually diagnosed with ADHD?

    Finding out that your child has ADHD can be stressful, but the truth is that finally getting a diagnosis can be reassuring. This means that your child will finally get the help they need to function more easily. Treatment for ADHD in kids include parental education, support in implementing behavioral medication techniques, and medication.

  • Can ADHD be prevented?

    At this time, it’s not known whether ADHD can be prevented. However, getting an early diagnosis and beginning treatment as early as possible ensures a better outcome for your child. So don’t hesitate to share any early symptoms of ADHD that you may be noticing in your toddler with your healthcare provider. This way, treatment can start early, should your child need it.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Athanasiadou A, Buitelaar J, Brovedani P, et al. Early motor signs of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: a systematic review. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2020;29:903–916. doi:10.1007/s00787-019-01298-5

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Early Warning Signs of ADHD.

  3. Brown H, Harvey E. Psychometric Properties of ADHD Symptoms in Toddlers. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. 2019;48(3):423-439. doi:10.1080/15374416.2018.1485105

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. Diagnosing ADHD in Children: Guidelines & Information for Parents.

  5. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Children.

  6. Gurevitz M, Geva R, Varon M, Leitner Y. Early markers in infants and toddlers for development of ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders. 2014;18(1):14-22. doi:10.1177/1087054712447858

  7. Mehren A, Reichert M, Coghill D, Müller HHO, Braun N, Philipsen A. Physical exercise in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - evidence and implications for the treatment of borderline personality disorder. Borderline Personal Disord Emot Dysregul. 2020;7:1. doi:10.1186/s40479-019-0115-2

Additional Reading

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.