ADHD Toddlers: Signs and Symptoms of Attention Deficit in Young Children

"I suspect my toddler has ADHD, but how can I tell?" one parent asks. "Can ADHD toddlers be treated at such a young age?"
The Experts | posted by Michele Novotni, Ph.D.

Symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) can be seen in toddlers as early as 1 or 2 years of ageSigns include high levels of activity -- more than a typical child -- and problems sleeping and napping. Making the transition from one activity to another is another clue. Signs of inattentive ADD/ADHD are rarely detectable until much later when the child enters school.

Most doctors won’t treat a toddler who has ADD/ADHD with medication until they are at least 5 -- except in cases where they present a danger to themselves or others. My son was so hyperactive and impulsive that the physician recommended he start taking medication when he was 2. He had been kicked out of every day care center in our area, and we had to hire two babysitters at a time to watch him. We didn’t start him on medication, though, until he was 5.

If your toddler is younger than 5, these alternative treatments may be helpful:

Find activities that soothe and settle your child. Busy environments like a shopping mall or a crowded park, as well as listening to music, can calm a hyperactive child. Some may find classical music soothing, while others settle down with country or even hip-hop. Test it out and see what your toddler responds best to.

Engage in physical activities to help her burn off energy before sitting down at a restaurant or at someone’s house. Before leaving the house, play tag or a physically intensive game on Wii or engage in a favorite activity your toddler likes to do with you. Brain Gym ( movements, which engage the body to activate and calm your brain, may also be helpful.

Use a leash or harness to keep your child safe in public places, if a cart or stroller isn’t available. I used a leash with my hyperactive son, and it helped a lot.

Change your schedule to limit activities that require your child to stay quiet and still. Perhaps your partner can stay home with your child while you shop or attend a local concert. When going out to dinner, select a place that is kid friendly -- Friendly’s is better than a fine-dining restaurant. Another alternative: Call and order ahead to minimize waits at a restaurant. Many restaurants will accommodate the requests of parents with special-needs kids.

Some parents calm their hyperactive children by giving them a little caffeine -- like a glass of Mountain Dew -- or Benadryl. Check with your doctor before trying this.

A final note: It’s important for parents of hyperactive toddlers to take care of themselves and to get support. Raising a special-needs child is a marathon, not a sprint!

Michele Novotni, Ph.D., is the former president and CEO of the national Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA), a best-selling author, a psychologist, a coach, a parent of a young adult with ADD/ADHD, an ADDitude magazine writer, and a contributor to ADDitude's new ADHD Experts Blog.

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