Mental health professionals do not diagnose attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children under age 4. Certain behaviors associated with ADHD in school aged children may be considered typical in toddlers.

Professionals typically diagnose ADHD in school aged children 12 or younger. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, doctors and healthcare professionals should not diagnose the condition in children before age 4.

ADHD is more than just typical toddler behavior. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the condition must occur over a long period and impair functioning. This is part of the reason ADHD is not typically diagnosed in toddlerhood.

While toddlers may show some signs of ADHD, it does not necessarily mean they have the condition. At this age, they may have difficulty paying attention or be hyperactive or impulsive.

But some toddler behaviors may lead some parents to wonder whether or not their child has ADHD or has a chance of developing it.

Read on for a checklist of symptoms to watch out for.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that may cause hyperactivity (constantly active behavior) and impulsive behaviors. People with ADHD, including children, typically have trouble focusing on one task. They may also have difficulty sitting still for long periods.

Was this helpful?

According to a 2019 study, some behaviors noted in toddlerhood could be related to the development of ADHD. However, considerably more research is needed.

According to the NIH, these are the three main signs of the condition in kids over age 3:

These behaviors also occur in children without ADHD. A child won’t receive an ADHD diagnosis unless they have several symptoms that have been present for at least 6 months and that affect their functioning. These symptoms may affect their ability to participate in age-appropriate activities.

Great care must be taken in diagnosing ADHD in children, particularly when considering medication. A mental health professional or pediatrician will be the best at making a diagnosis at this young age.

Many mental health professionals will not make a diagnosis until the child has been in school. This is because a key criterion for ADHD is that the symptoms are present in two or more settings. For example, a child shows symptoms at home and school, or with a parent and with friends or relatives.

Several behaviors can indicate your child has difficulty with attention, a key sign of ADHD. In school aged children, symptoms of inattention may look like:

  • difficulty with sustaining attention, in play or completing work
  • difficulty listening and following directions
  • difficulty paying attention to detail and making seemingly small mistakes
  • challenges staying organized
  • avoiding tasks at home or school that require more sustained attention

Note, however, that these behaviors can also be typical in a toddler and expected for their developmental phase.

In the past, ADHD was called attention deficit disorder.

Many medical and mental health communities call the condition ADHD because the disorder often includes components of both hyperactivity and impulsivity. This is particularly true when diagnosed in preschool aged children.

Signs of hyperactivity that your toddler may display include:

  • being overly fidgety and squirmy when seated
  • being unable to sit still for calm activities like eating and having books read to them
  • talking and making noise excessively
  • running from toy to toy, or constantly being in motion
  • running around or climbing at inappropriate times

Another symptom of ADHD is impulsivity. Signs that your child has overly impulsive behaviors can include:

  • displaying extreme impatience with others
  • having difficulty waiting for their turn when playing with other children
  • interrupting when others are talking
  • speaking at inappropriate times
  • answering questions before they are fully asked or finishing other people’s sentences

Again, these can be expected behaviors in toddlers. They would only be a reason for concern if they’re extreme when compared to those of children of a similar age or if they’re affecting your toddler’s functioning.

A school aged child with ADHD may show other symptoms as well. These may include:

  • more frustration, anger, and outbursts than their peers
  • endangering oneself or others due to fearlessness
  • difficulty calming down
  • aggressive behaviors (toward self or others)
  • little need for sleep

While mental health professionals should not diagnose ADHD in toddlers, you may want to discuss your concerns with a pediatrician or mental health professional. This may help determine a diagnosis when your child reaches school age. These healthcare professionals may also offer suggestions to help with hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention.

Children can only receive an ADHD diagnosis when they have reached school age. Pediatricians and mental health professionals may base an ADHD diagnosis on the child’s behaviors and other symptoms.

It’s sometimes easy for parents and teachers to mistake certain behaviors for ADHD.

For example, toddlers sitting quietly and behaving in preschool may not be paying attention. Children with hyperactivity may have challenges listening to, understanding, or carrying out instructions.

Most toddlers may show hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention at times. This may look like excessive energy or trouble following directions.

If you’re concerned about your child’s behavior, you may want to speak with a pediatrician or mental health professional.

The NIH notes that ADHD can be very common among children. The CDC estimates that 2% of children ages 3 to 5 have ADHD.

If you think your toddler may be showing signs of ADHD, consider sharing your concerns with a pediatrician. They may be able to help you and your child manage the condition. They may also point out other signs to look for and guide the diagnosis process when your child is old enough.

While there is no cure for ADHD, treatment can help improve your child’s symptoms. This may include:

  • medication
  • psychotherapy, including family therapy, behavioral therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy
  • lifestyle measures

For success at school, certain classroom management tactics may also help improve your child’s attention.

Doctors and healthcare professionals do not diagnose ADHD in toddlers. They may diagnose the condition in school aged children.

Many behaviors associated with hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention in school aged children may be typical behavior in toddlers.

If you have concerns about your toddler’s behavior, you may want to discuss them with a pediatrician or mental health professional.