Pediatrician Q&A: Reading to an active toddler

Dr. Ram, Meriter Deming Way

Dr. Sumita Ram, Meriter Medical Group Pediatrician

Q: “Whenever I try to read to my 16 month old son he screams and gets angry and shuts the book. He never listens for even one moment and gets really upset whenever I try. He doesn’t like to sit and be cuddle very often – he would rather be moving around exploring everything. Does this mean that he could have ADD? Everyone keeps telling me that I should read to him, but he honestly won’t let me.”

A: It is VERY NORMAL for toddlers to have a limited attention span and, therefore, a diagnosis of ADD is never made at your son’s age. Remember, that toddlers are generally on the move during most of their awake time. It is common for them to move from activity to activity every few minutes. Occasionally, toddlers might spend a solid five minutes or more on one toy or activity if they are highly motivated or interested at the time, but expect that to be the exception, not the rule!

If you have concerns that you son doesn’t ever make good eye contact, doesn’t seem to respond to social cues, isn’t developing language skills or has stereotyped repetitive behaviors/movements, you should talk to your pediatrician.

Here are some strategies to get your son 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 consider limiting the number of toys available. Put some toys away in a hidden area and rotate them back and forth.

I definitely agree that it is important to read to your child when possible, because the one-on-one attention you give your son during reading time encourages a positive association with reading later in life. It also helps promote language and other cognitive skills.

Remember that read-aloud time doesn’t have to be the only opportunity to spend time with books. Sometimes toddlers love to choose and look at books on their own. You could keep books in a basket on the floor where your child can reach them easily and look at them independently. Keep some books in the car and always have a few handy in your bag when you’re out and about. For younger toddlers, you’ll want sturdy board books with pictures of kids doing the things they do every day. Books about bedtime, baths or mealtime are all good choices. Keep active hands busy with lift-the-flap pages and textures to feel. Toddlers also love to look at homemade books, scrapbooks, or photo albums full of people they know.

Trying to read to a toddler who just won’t sit still can be frustrating. Be patient and consistent without forcing the issue. Find a book or a few pages that are of interest. If you can’t do that, don’t force the reading, just try again later. Some busy toddlers like to stand up while you read to them. Others like to look at a page or two before moving on to something else. You might want to keep reading even if your child moves around. Don’t assume that because your child isn’t looking at you or the book that he isn’t interested or listening.

Hope that helps and happy reading!

Sumita Ram, MD
Meriter Pediatrics
2275 Deming Way
Middleton, WI

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