The short-attention-span toddler

A question from M in the suggestion thread: “What is a realistic attention span of an 18 month old concerning playing with toys? My husband and I can’t agree if it’s ‘normal’ for an 18 month old to go from toy to toy. Should the amount of toys offered/housed in an area be limited?”

Normal toddlers can have a very short attention span. At times, they’ll zoom from toy to toy like a hummingbird, barely touching one thing before moving on to another. It’s common for toddlers to lose interest three pages into a story, and completely lose interest in a new toy by the time Mom gets the package open!

Occasionally, toddlers will spend a solid five minutes or more on one toy, but expect that to be the exception, not the rule.

Some people feel that modern life has led to a loss of attention prowess in children. There is evidence that children who watch more TV are more likely later to do diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. Certainly, children today have more electronic toys than ever before. Many kids have access to a great number of noisy, sparkling, and captivating toys. It’s difficult to know if shorter attention spans have really become the rule, but to many older people this seems true.

Some strategies to get your child to slow down, if you think his short attention span is a problem: turn off the TV, set a good example by staying relaxed, avoid multitasking or rushing him through activities, and certainly limit the number of toys available. If you don’t want to part with toys for good, put some away in a hidden area, and rotate toys back and forth—sort of like a “toy library.” But you’d better hide those backup toys well!

© 2008 Roy Benaroch, MD from

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3 Comments on “The short-attention-span toddler”

  1. Allison Says:

    You answered this question for a toddler, but what about the attention span of an (almost) 4 year old? Mine won’t sit for more than a minute, three if given a (food) bribe. I can’t get him to play a game to completion, do a puzzle, color or draw, or do other things that a 4 year old should be (IMHO) developmentally doing that requires attention. I describe him as having the attention span of a flea. His school has the same issue with him. Should I be concerned?

    edit: this comment was moved here by Admin for continuity


  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    Attention spans vary at every age, but if you and his teachers feel his attention span is very different from other kids his age, it may become a problem for him as school progresses and social interactions demand more sustained attention when he gets older. Attention spans typically do improve with age, but I don’t know if you can determine with certainty how he’ll be doing in a few years. For now, see if any improvements in sleep, diet, and exercise habits can help– especially try to provide plenty of opportunities to blow off steam physically. As time progresses, if his flea-like attention span is preventing him from succeeding in school or socially you may want to have a more formal evaluation performed.


  3. Carol Says:

    Your four year old should be able to attend to a simple yet interesting task for up to 5 minutes minimum. If he/she cannot, I would seek help through the local school district and or the Early childhood Program for your state. There are free services he may qualify for. You can help him by reducing the stimuli in his environment. His play area should be plain and toys hidden behind s curtained shelves or closed cupboards. Present him with one simple activity such as a 4 piece puzzle and help him to complete it. Slowly increase the complexity as he is successful. If he is distracted, draw his attention back to it with verbal cues (“Look!”, “Ohhh!” this puppy is funny!) etc…I would also have him sit at a table in a chair (proper height for him etc) as the body position will help him attend and irt will be easier to get him to attend again…Also, consult with your physician concerning ADD. But first do all of the above and see if he does not improve!


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