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Should I Worry About My Toddler’s Short Attention Span?

My toddler has a short attention span. Should I worry about ADD or anything else?
ByMichael Lee, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center and pediatrician at Children’s Medical Center Dallas
Pediatrician
Updated
Mar 2017
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Toddlers are the kings and queens of short attention spans! Seriously — virtually every toddler in the world flits from activity to activity every few minutes, and that’s perfectly normal. In fact, it’s far more unusual to have a toddler who can pay attention for long periods of time than one who becomes restless within a few minutes of, well, just about anything.

That said, toddlers’ attention spans tend to expand as they grow. A three-going-on-four-year-old can typically sit still a lot longer than a just-turned-two-year-old, so be sure to consider the age and progress of your child. In general, is she better at paying attention now than a year ago? If so, she’s probably right on track.

Of course, short attention spans can signal trouble. If you’re worried, mention your concern to your child’s health care provider. “Concerns for ADHD are valid but difficult to tease out at this age. So one of the first things I look at is if the child is getting proper sleep,” says Michael Lee, MD, a pediatrician at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. “Kids who are sleep-deprived can be either hyper- or hypoactive.”

Dr. Lee (and other doctors) will also assess the family environment. Consistent, firm-but-fair and loving parenting goes a long way toward helping young children develop attention spans. Your doctor may check your child’s hearing; sometimes, kids don’t respond to directions because they didn’t hear them in the first place. The doc will assess your child’s health and development too. If her overall growth and development is on pace, the short attention span may be nothing to worry about. But if she’s starting to miss developmental milestones, further evaluation may be needed.

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