7 Early Signs of ADHD in Toddlers and Young Children


Most of the symptoms that signal ADHD in children sound like typical toddler behavior. It’s definitely true that all infants and toddlers can be impatient, impulsive, and fussy from time to time. But since you’re reading this article, you’ve likely wondered where the line is between “typical toddler behavior” and symptoms that indicate ADHD.

There are a few good reasons why children shouldn’t receive an ADHD diagnosis before they turn 4. More on those in a moment. In this blog post, we’ll cover seven early signs you should pay attention to and how to help an infant or toddler who may have ADHD.

Can babies and toddlers be diagnosed with ADHD?

The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend diagnosing ADHD for children under 4. But that doesn’t mean infants and toddlers can’t have noticeable ADHD symptoms that may call for treatment interventions. The neurological differences that cause ADHD are present from birth. The problem is that it’s not always easy to tell whether behavioral symptoms are caused by these types of differences in early childhood. Also, early ADHD diagnosis may direct attention away from other factors like sleep problems, sensory processing issues, hearing impairment, learning or cognitive disabilities, and childhood trauma.

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7 early signs of ADHD in babies and toddlers 

Another issue with diagnosing ADHD in toddlers is that they cycle through growth milestones and behaviors so quickly. To indicate ADHD, symptoms must be present for at least six months and affect their functioning in more than one environment. It can be hard to get a reliable consensus from caregivers and early childhood educators. Many of them aren’t qualified to determine whether children’s behaviors are symptoms of ADHD or other potential problems. 

For all of these reasons, it can be hard to find information about ADHD symptoms and presentations before elementary school age. One way many parents get their first glimpse of a child’s ADHD symptoms is by watching their ability to participate in age-appropriate activities. There are often behavioral interventions parents can provide to help their toddlers bridge these gaps. The potential consequences of misdiagnosing a child with ADHD outweigh any benefit of receiving an official diagnosis at an early age. 

The presence of these symptoms and behaviors for more than six months could indicate that an infant or toddler is likely to have ADHD:

  • Big reactions to the little things — Emotional regulation is a key area where infants and toddlers with ADHD start to show differences from their peers. Negative reactions or tantrums tend to be the most obvious predictors, but intense emotions can be both positive and negative. 
  • Challenges with organization — Most parents wouldn’t expect their toddler to have “organizational skills.” But they might notice if their child has problems assessing where objects “fit” or remembering where things belong. Problems with visual perception, visual motor skills, and spatial reasoning could be precursors of ADHD.
  • Problems with following complex directions — Inattentiveness and distractibility can cause young children to have a hard time following a set of directions with several steps. Make a daily to-do list with simple pictures and check them off together to help your child with short-term memory and learning routines.
  • Difficulty understanding time — People with ADHD often perceive time differently than others. A child who doesn’t have a concept for two minutes versus 15 minutes won’t understand when you communicate in these terms. However children with ADHD can have more difficulty than others with understanding things like waiting, time spans and time of day.
  • Big reactions to perceived failures — Studies have shown that children with ADHD are more likely to give up on frustrating tasks than neurotypical children. They can also struggle with problem-solving and understanding their strengths and weaknesses. A child with ADHD may need more reassurance and help to understand that it’s OK to have different abilities than others.
  • Paying attention — Impulse control is something many toddlers struggle to learn. Young children with ADHD may have trouble sticking with activities until they’re finished or starting activities they aren’t excited about.
  • Cognitive difficulties — Around preschool age, toddlers with ADHD may start to show more difficulties with abstract thinking, language, and critical reasoning. For example, they may not do simple things in a logical order or they may have trouble applying concepts they’ve learned to new situations.
  • Trouble with unstructured time — Negotiating play and taking turns can be hard for children with ADHD, and unstructured playtime with other children can seem chaotic and overwhelming to them. These children may need some coaching and guidance to thrive when they’re allowed to have fun with other kids.


Give your toddler a head start with Executive Function skills

Helping a child develop these skills is a huge job, and nobody can do it alone. Children with ADHD learn best when they have multiple adults in their lives who are reinforcing the basic behaviors they need help with. It’s also true that some are more likely to take suggestions from someone who’s not their parent. 

When your child is ready for school, they could benefit from working with an Executive Function coach. Executive Functioning is how we manage life. It’s a set of skills we use to be effective in planning, initiating, and achieving daily goals at home, in school, and in the workplace. Executive Function skills are trainable and coachable with time and the right tools.

In the meantime, you can download our free Beyond BookSmart ADHD Success Kit. We created it for caring parents like you who want to help their children in areas where they’re struggling.

Curious to learn more? Contact our team today for more information or to schedule an initial inquiry.

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