Q&A: "loopy" toddler

A reader who wishes to remain anonymous writes:

"I hope you can shed some light on some worries I have about my son, who just turned two a few days ago.

He is happy, high energy, extremely affectionate, and a very precocious talker (he has been saying four, five, and six word sentences for many months now, and has a large vocabulary).  He asks for things he wants (including to snuggle and to nurse) and refuses things he doesn't.  He's just started using "I" to refer to himself (although he still sometimes gets confused about that).  But sometimes he is a little . . . well, the best word for it, I think, is loopy.  He entertains himself really well and wanders around singing songs, saying lines from books, and imitating the characters from the one kids' TV show we let him watch.  Sometimes you can get his attention while he's off in his own world -- he almost always (eventually) answers what I'd term very "concrete" questions:  What are you holding?  What color is it?  and so on.  But sometimes (and once in a while for pretty much a whole day at a time) it's almost impossible to get his attention, and therefore his responses to you are non sequiturs -- most often a memorized line of some kind. And he virtually never -- even at his most engaged --answers a less concrete question like "what did you have for dinner?" or even "do you want a snack?"

My husband thinks I'm crazy for worrying about this. He points out that the boy gets tons of stimulation, and thinks that's it's fine for him to "retreat" into his own head for a while.  But I work full-time (my son has an amazing substitute grandma nanny) and almost never see other kids his age (although he does -- he goes to music class and the playground and so on during the day when I'm not there).  So my question is -- is this "loopiness" normal?  At what age can I expect him to say "chicken" (a word he knows perfectly well) when I ask him five minutes after dinner what he just ate -- or should I really be concerned that he is already not more conversational when he knows so many
words?"

This is so tough. There's no way for me to diagnose this without seeing him in action. It doesn't sound completely normal, but I haven't seen him. And I think each parent is convinced about 50% of the time that our child is appallingly normal and the other 50% of the time that there's something seriously odd about our kid. You've got the problem of not spending time around other kids his age as a control group to compare him to, and you also don't have an impartial daycare provider with a group of children who could tell you how he compares to the other kids.

My first reaction is that it sounds like he's reacting to something he's ingesting. What you're describing sounds exactly like I feel when I've eaten MSG. It also sounds a lot like some of the symptoms of ADD, and a successful treatment for ADD is the Feingold Diet, which focuses on eliminating things like artificial flavors and colors and foods containing salicylate. Even if what's happening to him doesn't match exactly with the Feingold program, it still sounds suspiciously like a reaction to something that he's ingesting in small doses most of the time, and in large doses at other times.

I think you need to get your husband to understand that this doesn't sound like typical behavior. Then the two of you need to keep a log for a couple of weeks of what he eats and drinks and when, and how he acts. When it's worse, and when it's better. Include things like toothpaste with artificial flavors or colors, any medications (especially OTC), and any "extra" foods like lollipops or other treats that don't affect his mealtimes. I think you're also going to have to be very diplomatically direct with your "grandma nanny" (I'm sure she loves being there with him to be a substitute grandma). It's possible that she's feeding him some stuff (read: treats) that she doesn't tell you about, and they could be chock full of artificial crap. Delicious artificial crap, but crap that could be aggravating his loopiness nonetheless. So you'll have to be very open about how much you love her and that she loves him and spoils him, but that you're concerned that he's having bad reactions to something he's eating and you hope all of you can be detectives to figure out what it is. I hope she'll be able to come clean about anything extra she's giving him, if anything.

So track what he's eating and what symptoms he's having, and see if you can find any connections. If you can, try eliminating things from his diet to see if you see any change. It might be as simple as changing brands of things you eat.

If you can't find any connection between his diet and his symptoms, I'd ask his pediatrician for a referral to have him evaluated by a developmental psychologist. It could be nothing and he's normal. It could be something common that kids grow out of. It could be something more serious that means he's going to be a brilliant writer but never a news anchor. It could be something that means he needs some therapy to help grow out of. But if you get him evaluated, at least you'll know. You're obviously worried enough about it to write to me, so don't let your husband talk you out of pursuing it. If it turns out to be nothing, then your husband can say "I told you so." But if it turns out to be something your son needs help with, you'd never forgive yourself if you ignored your instincts and didn't get him help.

I hope it's something easy and obvious in hindsight. Please check in with me in a few weeks to let me know what's happening.