Why Is Your Toddler So Distracted and Is It Normal? – What To Expect

We believe you should always know the source of the information you’re reading. Learn more about our editorial and medical review policies.

Watching your toddler dart from the shape sorter to the block pile and then zoom over to play kitchen can leave you wondering if your child has any attention span at all. The truth is, toddlers are easily distracted. Flitting from one activity to another is part of their job description. 
That short attention span can work in your favor. Distraction is a good way to short-circuit a toddler tantrum or keep your tot from grabbing the cookies off the supermarket shelf. 

But sometimes you just need your child to focus long enough to cut her nails or sit at the Thanksgiving table (for a few minutes at least). It’s not impossible to gradually extend how long your child can pay attention, even if it’s just another minute or two.
Here’s what to know about toddler attention spans, what’s normal in terms of toddler distraction, and how to teach your child to focus.

Why is my toddler so distracted? Is it normal?

It takes a long time for the brain to grow and develop. The front part of the brain, which is responsible for impulse control, attention and filtering distractions, is still a work-in-progress — and will be until your child is 20-something years old.
Besides, toddlers are too busy learning about their world to be able to concentrate on just one thing for very long.[1] There’s a lot to see and do as your little one masters important skills. 
That’s why it’s important to scale back any expectations about your child’s attention span (at least during these early years). Also important: Recognize that your tot’s attention span is elastic and can shift depending on the time of day and what’s going on around her.
If she’s hungry or tired, she might focus for a nano-second. If she’s just gotten up, she might be able to sit and look at a book long enough for you to take a super-quick shower.

How long is a typical attention span by age for toddlers?

No one has really done studies on how long a toddler can pay attention. But generally, experts think that kids can focus about two to three minutes per year of age. Just remember that these are generalizations, though — and all kids are different.

1-year-old attention span

After your child turns 1, she may able to focus for only about one to two minutes at a time. 

2-year-old attention span

By the time your toddler turns 2, the attention span should increase to roughly three to six minutes. As she gets closer to her third birthday, expect her to focus for roughly four to eight minutes at a time, depending on the activity.

3-year-old attention span

Older toddlers and preschoolers can pay attention a bit longer. For one, they have the language and skills to interact with other kids (or you) as they play. They can make up stories and play pretend games, so playtime is just more entertaining.
Expect your 3- and 4-year-old to be able to play alone for roughly five to 10 minutes or so.

How to teach your child to focus 

You can’t really “teach” your child to focus. But you can encourage her to stay focused as you play and hang out together. Playing is how toddlers learn and fine-tune all their skills, from motor skills like walking and kicking a ball to social/emotional ones like taking turns and sharing.[2] 
And at this age, they still need you (or another caring grown-up) sitting on the sidelines or joining in as they play to give a boost to all these skills, including attention.
Here are some fun ways to get your child to stay on task without being a taskmaster: 

1. Don’t force your child to pay attention

If your tot couldn’t care less about sitting on your lap during storytime, find another way to nab her interest. Let her stand or move around as you read, for example. Or just shelve the books for now and sing songs, tell stories (she can tell you about her day if she’s able), and sportscast whatever you’re doing together to boost those language and attention skills.

2. Meet your child where she is

Figure out what activities your child gravitates toward. Maybe she loves to scribble on the patio with colored chalk. Or she’s into helping you “bake” some Play-Doh cookies and feed them to her toys. Or she just wants to kick a ball around.
Your toddler will focus on the toys she loves for a lot longer, especially if she has you as a playmate as well as a helper when she gets stuck on something.

3. Play some attention-grabbing games

“Follow the Leader,” “Simon Says,” “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” and “Freeze Dancing” are all games that require toddlers to pay attention. They’re also active and interactive, so even the bounciest kids will get into them, whether it’s just you and your child or a playmate or two.
Just remember to give your toddler hints about what to do next and don’t expect these games to last long. Another bonus: They’re also good for teaching turn-taking.

4. Minimize distractions

Your toddler can focus better if there are fewer sounds and sources of stimulation around her. So turn off the TV and put your phone away. Screens aren’t as good as old-school, interactive playtime with you anyway. 

5. Tame toy overload

Less is more where toys are concerned. That doesn’t mean minimal wooden blocks. It means putting out fewer playthings at a time. Toddlers tended to play longer and more creatively when they only had four toys within reach instead of 16, research has found. When it’s time to clean up toys, get your toddler to join in.

6. Get down on your toddler’s level

When you want her to pay attention to a house rule, say, or transition her from playtime to bathtime, squat down and look her in the eye. That will get her to focus for long enough to listen. 

When to call the doctor

If you’re concerned that your 2- or 3-year-old is more easily distracted and restless than other kids at day care or preschool, reach out to your pediatrician with any concerns. It’s likely your toddler’s behavior falls into the wide range of what’s common for kids her age. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Keep in mind, too, that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) doesn’t recommend screening kids for ADHD until they’re at least 4 years old. That’s because toddler brains are developing so quickly that the very behaviors that seem troubling today probably won’t even be an issue in a couple of months.
What would be more concerning is if your toddler were constantly hitting or biting, which might be a sign that she’s having trouble understanding you or expressing herself. So if that’s what is also going on, bring it up with your child’s pediatrician. 
Don’t worry if your child doesn’t have the attention span to sit still or focus on something for longer than two or three minutes. Pretty soon, she’ll surprise you. In the meantime, keep playing. It’s good for her brain! 
From the What to Expect editorial team and Heidi Murkoff, author of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. What to Expect follows strict reporting guidelines and uses only credible sources, such as peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions and highly respected health organizations. Learn how we keep our content accurate and up-to-date by reading our medical review and editorial policy.
Please whitelist our site to get all the best deals and offers from our partners.
The educational health content on What To Expect is reviewed by our medical review board and team of experts to be up-to-date and in line with the latest evidence-based medical information and accepted health guidelines, including the medically reviewed What to Expect books by Heidi Murkoff. This educational content is not medical or diagnostic advice. Use of this site is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy. © 2005-2023 Everyday Health, Inc., a Ziff Davis company.

cool-black-logo Opens a new window

What to Expect supports Group Black Opens a new window and its mission to increase greater diversity in media voices and media ownership. Group Black’s collective includes Essence Opens a new window, The Shade Room Opens a new window and Naturally Curly Opens a new window.

What to Expect supports Group Black Opens a new window and its mission to increase greater diversity in media voices and media ownership. Group Black’s collective includes Essence Opens a new window, The Shade Room Opens a new window and Naturally Curly Opens a new window.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top