Q: My 15-month-old never stops moving. He won't sit for longer than a minute or two to play with a toy or read a book. He just wants to be on the go. I am concerned about whether a child this young can have ADHD. How can I find out?
A: It certainly sounds like you have a very busy, active toddler. And in this day and age, when many parents are hearing so much and are concerned about ADHD—Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—I can understand why you might wonder about your own child. However, from your description, it sounds like your son is healthy and thriving, and that his attention span is right in line with other 15-month-olds, (the average attention span for this age group being less than 2 minutes).
ADHD is generally not diagnosed in children under 5 or 6 because being highly active is well within the range of normal behavior for young children. In fact, all the scientific literature on ADHD describes the disorder as “inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that are inappropriate for age.” In children younger than 3-5 years of age, the diagnosis is usually reserved for children with severe impulsivity that is putting them in physical danger (such as running into the street). In addition, for the diagnosis to be made, the child’s symptoms must be interfering in his functioning in more than one setting (such as home and school).
Your son sounds like a very curious little guy who is eager to learn. There is nothing better for a toddler than being hungry to explore. In addition, it is important to consider the influence of temperament—your child’s individual way of approaching the world. Your son’s activity level is not necessarily an indication of a problem; it is just his preferred way of interacting and exploring. He feels good when he is on the move.
If, as your child becomes a preschooler (3 or 4), his activity level gets in the way of his interacting and connecting with others, or his ability to learn (because he is moving so fast he doesn’t have time to take in any information or learn to problem-solve), I would recommend that you talk with your child’s health care provider or other trusted child development professional.
While your son’s behavior sounds quite typical, there are things you can do to help him get the physical activity he needs while also helping him learn to slow down (and give you a well-deserved break. Indeed, parents of very active children are often exhausted but also in good shape!).
• Establish routines so that his world is predictable and he knows what to expect. This will help him slow down and prepare for what’s coming next.
• Make sure that he is getting enough sleep since children tend to be more active and distracted when they are overtired. (While there is a wide range for how much sleep children this age need, the average is about 13 hours at night. Naps are still important at this age, too.)
• Offer lots of opportunities for safe, active play.
• Engage your child’s help in everyday activities. Ask him to put the spoons on the table or have him help you pick up leaves in the yard.
• Give your toddler time to wind down. Start limiting active play at least an hour before bedtime and perhaps 30 minutes before nap time. Engage in quiet, soothing activities.
• Make quieter activities rewarding for him—such as snuggling together while looking at a book.
Remember, active children aren’t wild or out of control, they just need to move.