Your toddler’s attention span

As Baby enters their eighteenth month, you might start noticing that they have an easier time focusing on activities for extended periods of time than they used to. That focus will continue to grow over time, and mature all the way into adulthood.

At this stage, you can expect Baby to be engrossed in a single activity for about two to three minutes. It might seem small, but there are lots of skills that Baby has had to develop to gain even that degree of an attention span.

Increased attention means that Baby can ignore distractions. To ignore distractions Baby has to be able to get invested in an activity. To care about an activity, Baby needs to be able to make goals and pursue them. To have a goal, Baby needs to understand cause and effect. That’s so many skills!

Too little attention?

Some parents may be concerned that their toddler isn’t able to focus often enough, or for long enough. At this stage, try not to worry too much. Baby is full of endless curiosity and their eagerness to jump from one activity to another is generally a positive thing.

It’s easy to confuse a lack of attention with a common toddler tendency to get bored. A bored toddler might need help finding new and engaging activities to stimulate their powerful, growing mind.

If you’re worried about Baby‘s attention, here are a few questions you can ask yourself:

  • When Baby is engaging a structured activity, is they able to easily ignore a normal amount of distraction?
  • Is Baby able to follow a routine set of activities, like the order of things they do to get ready for bed, without stopping many times?
  • Does they sometimes get frustrated when something doesn’t turn out how they expect, like when you stop reading their favorite story before it’s finished?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then Baby is learning the skills for a strong attention span, and just needs time to develop them more.

Can you teach attention?

Some research suggests that attention skills can be nurtured starting at a very young age. One of the key influencers in learned attention is the ability to self-comfort. This might be because overcoming hard problems causes stress, and the more easily Baby can deal with stress the more they will be able to work through the task causing it.

Try to be present with Baby when you see them concentrating on their own activity. You can help encourage focus by being a gentle, stress-relieving force. See if you can reduce distractions in these moments, both for yourself and for Baby.

You can think of it like when you’re driving on the highway. Sometimes you need to turn the radio off and ask everyone in the car to be quiet so you can focus. Once you’ve gotten through, there’s a feeling of relief and you can once again safely enjoy light distractions like a podcast or car-games.

Be a good model of attention. Put your phone away, embrace some silence, be still, focus on Baby as they concentrate, and you can help Baby learn valuable skills that will help them in school, in work, and life in general.  

  • Bridget M. Gaetner, Tracy L. Spinrad, Nancy Eisenberg. “Focused Attention in Toddlers.” Infant and Child Development. August 2008. 17(4): 339-363. Retrieved June 1 2017.
  • Paulo A. Graziano, Susan D. Calkins, Susan P. Keane. “Sustained Attention Development during the Toddlerhood to Preschool Period: Associations with Toddlers’ Emotion Regulation Strategies and Maternal Behavior.” Infant and Child Development. November 2011. 20(6): 389-408. Retrieved June 1 2017.
  • Kevin McSpadden. “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span than a Goldfish.” Time. Time, May 14 2015. Retrieved June 1 2017.
  • Lexi Walters Wright. “The Importance of Self-Control for Kids with Learning and Attention Issues.” Understood. Understood.Org. Retrieved June 1 2017. 
  • “Foundation: Attention Maintenance.” California Department of Education. California Department of Education, September 23 2016. Retrieved June 1 2017. 
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