When could I notice ADHD symptoms?

One second your toddler is looking for bugs in the grass. The next, they are trying to stage a jailbreak into the yard next door. And the moment after that, they are running over to you and demanding story time. Before the six-page picture book is done, they want a snack, and they want to have it outside, so they can go back to looking for bugs in the grass. Sound familiar? Toddlers spend a lot of their time not slowing down, they’re easily distracted, and they can have a hard time focusing or sitting still. Their attention spans are still developing, and so are their social skills.

In fact, a lot of the traits that are totally normal and developmentally on-track for toddlers can also be signs of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. Because these traits overlap so often, ADHD, and its variation, ADD, aren’t generally diagnosed until children are at least 6 or 7 years old, even though experts believe the tendency towards ADHD is present from birth. It’s around this age that most children without ADHD start to grow out of these traits, and it becomes more clear which children they’re a consistent problem for, instead of a passing, developmental phase.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is, according to the CDC, one of the most commonly diagnosed neurodevelopmental disorders found in childhood. It’s often detected in children, but often lasts through adulthood, and is characterized by difficulty paying attention; acting without thinking about consequences, or acting without much impulse-control; or being overly physically active.

Researchers aren’t sure yet what causes ADHD, or what the risk factors might be other than genetics. There is a genetic factor, though, and a 2011 study by the Kennedy Krieger Institute found that preschool children showing symptoms of ADHD tend to have a smaller caudate nucleus, a part of the brain associated with cognitive and motor control.

On the other hand, research does not support many popular theories about ADHD. For example, ADHD is not shown to be caused by too much sugar, too much TV, any particular parenting style, poverty, or any other environmental factors.

How is ADHD diagnosed?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) has identified several symptoms of both inattention, and hyperactivity/impulsivity. A child is only diagnosed with ADHD if they present with six or more symptoms of the identified symptoms of inattention, and/or of hyperactivity. This means it’s important to learn the symptoms, and stay aware of whether your child is exhibiting any. However, in children younger than 6 or 7, ADHD symptoms generally fall within the range of developmentally appropriate, no matter how many of them are present.


  • Doesn’t seem to listen when they are spoken to regularly
  • Often has trouble sticking to tasks or play activities, or switches between toys or activities quickly
  • Doesn’t pay attention to detail, or makes mistakes by not paying attention often
  • Regularly doesn’t follow through on tasks or instructions
  • Loses things often
  • Is regularly or easily distracted, has trouble following through
  • Doesn’t take on tasks that will take a long time or a lot of concentration
  • Is often forgetful
  • Has trouble with organization

Hyperactivity or impulsivity

  • Fidgets, squirms, or taps hands and feet often
  • Won’t stay in their seat very long
  • Feels restless and runs around or climbs things, even in situations where that’s not appropriate
  • Rarely enjoys or tries quiet play activities
  • Talks a lot
  • Has trouble waiting their turn
  • Answers questions before they’re finished being asked
  • Interrupts conversations or activities
  • Is always moving

It’s also important that these symptoms come up in more than one setting. If they’re happening at school, but not at home, and not anywhere else, it could just as easily be an issue with school. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that a doctor considering an ADHD diagnosis gather information about how the child acts in at least two major settings in their life. Symptoms also won’t lead to an ADHD diagnosis unless there’s clear evidence that they interfere with quality of life, and that the symptoms can’t be explained better by another disorder.

Are there any early signs of ADHD that might be present now? 

ADHD isn’t generally diagnosed until children are a little older, but parents who are concerned about their children’s development can keep an eye out for certain symptoms, and can discuss the possibility of ADHD with a healthcare provider. The Kennedy Krieger Institute recommends that parents keep an eye out for behaviors like an inability to pay attention to activities for longer than 2 minutes; losing interest in new activities quickly; talking more and being louder than other children the same age; restlessness including twitchiness, jiggling, and climbing things even when told not to; fearlessness, even after being injured; friendliness with strangers; or aggressiveness with playmates.

The bottom line

Again, it’s pretty rare that a child will be diagnosed with ADHD before 6 or 7 years old, but the signs may be present from a much younger age, so it’s always a good idea to pay close attention to your child’s tendencies, and discuss any concerns you might have with the pediatrician or family doctor.

  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Children.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, March 11 2016. Web.
  • “Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Symptoms and Diagnosis.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. US Department of Health and Human Services, October 5 2016. Web.
  • “Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Facts About ADHD.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. US Department of Health and Human Services, October 4 2016. Web.
  • “Brain Imaging Study of Preschoolers with ADHD Detects Brain DIfferences Linked to Symptoms.” Kennedy Krieger. Kennedy Krieger Institute, June 9 2011. Web.
  • “Early Warning Signs of ADHD.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Web.
  • “Is It ADHD or Typical Toddler Behavior? Ten Early Signs of ADHD Risk in Preschool Age Children.” Kennedy Krieger. Kennedy Krieger Institute, June 28 2012. Web.
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