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BY Jolene

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Babies and Toddlers: What Are the Symptoms?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a reality for many babies and toddlers with special needs. That’s the bad news. The good news is that effective treatments for PTSD exist, and they can be used with children as young as three. Before effective treatment can occur, the condition must first be correctly diagnosed. And for diagnosis to occur parents and health care professionals must be aware of the symptoms of PTSD.

Behavior Reveals Symptoms of PTSD in Babies and Toddlers

PTSD symptoms manifest much differently in babies and toddlers than in older children, adolescents, and adults. Because babies are preverbal and toddlers’ language development is limited, they can’t verbalize their fears. They can’t describe a nightmare or flashback. But the behaviors of infants and toddlers who have experienced significant trauma can offer clues that indicate the development of PTSD. By closely observing their behaviors, caring adults may notice symptoms related to PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD in Babies and Toddlers

What are some of the behavioral symptoms to look for?

1. Hypervigilance

A baby who is tense, watchful, or on guard even when in a familiar, comfortable, and safe environment is hypervigilant. Adults often consider the behavior to be part of the child’s personality. “He’s an anxious child,” we say. Or, “She’s a worrier.” But the behavior could be a symptom of PTSD.

2. Separation Anxiety or Clinginess

Most babies go through a clingy period between the ages of 6 and 12 months. But when a baby is clingy from a much earlier age and whose separation anxiety persists into toddlerhood, the behavior may indicate the development of PTSD.

3. Emotional distress when reminded of initial trauma

Infants and toddlers who have been traumatized remember preverbal trauma as visual images, sounds, smells, physical sensations, and emotions. When subjected to an environment that looks, sounds, smells, creates the same physical sensations, or evokes similar feelings, they often respond with emotional distress. If the emotional distress happens consistently when the child is exposed to that environment, it could be a symptom of PTSD.

4. Fear or avoidance of places that remind them of event

Babies and toddlers are smart people. They want to get out of scary places that remind them of previous trauma. Our son had major surgery at birth and 7 more surgeries before he was 5. He’s an adult now, but remembers going ballistic while being wheeled into surgery as a 5-year-old. He did everything he could to get off the gurney because he wanted to avoid the operating room.

5. Trouble sleeping

This symptom is not about youngsters who don’t need much sleep. It is about babies and toddlers who are afraid to be left alone in a room, who are terrified to fall asleep. They may be afraid of the dark, not just for a few weeks, but for months and months. When they begin talking, they are often convinced monsters live under their beds or in their closets.

6. Nightmares

Of course, it’s hard to know if a screaming baby was awakened by a nightmare, an empty stomach, diaper rash, or an ear ache. But if no physical reason exists for upsetting nocturnal awakenings, the behavior could be a PTSD symptom.

7. Repetitive play

As a baby becomes a toddler and develops vocabulary, repetitive play may indicate the presence of PTSD. Not the repeated play necessary for a youngster to develop new skills. But play that continues or re-emerges over many months and even years. Play that repeats a scenario similar to a trauma you know or suspect happened. A child who was in a car accident playing car crash over and over. A child who was in tornado playing “hide in the basement” more than seems healthy. A child adopted from an orphanage constantly tying a doll to the bed.

When to Seek PTSD Treatment for Babies and Toddlers

It’s normal for children to exhibit some of these behaviors in the first weeks after a significant trauma occurs. But if the behaviors persist more than 3 months after the initial event, treatment may be needed.

Once again, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that treatment is difficult during the preverbal years. The good news is that treatment can be highly effective in children as young as three. To learn more about symptoms and treatment of PTSD in children, check out these resources:


  1. Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes by Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline
  2. Trauma-Proofing Your Kids by Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline
  3. The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories by Bruce Perry
  4. Different Dream Parenting: A Practical Guide to Raising a Child with Special Needs by Jolene Philo
  5. Wounded Children, Healing Homes: How Traumatized Children Impact Adoptive and Foster Families by Jayne Schooler


  1. Child Trauma Acadamy:
  2. National Child Traumatic Stress Network:
  3. Different Dream Parenting (Type “PTSD” in the search box)
  4. Intensive Trauma Therapy, Inc:

Written on July 12, 2013 by:

Jolene Philo's first child, Allen, was born with a life-threatening birth defect that required 7 surgeries from birth to age five. She taught students with special needs in a variety of settings during her 25 years in education. Her book, Different Dream Parenting: A Practical Guide to Raising a Child with Special Needs was released by DHP in November of 2011. She also blogs about special needs at
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  • Sue Ringo

    at 7 months old my grandson was taken by his natural father across state lines for 1 month. when we brought him home we noticed he wasn’t the same child. even his dr was worried as he had no emotion in his face, didn’t want to b touched, extremely clingy after the first few weeks home. fast forward—at 2 we realized he wasn’t learning to speak, he hand flapped, circled, did not like strangers. early intervention evaluated him and he was diagnosed developmentaly delayed. he has had ot,dt,st,pt,behavioral therapy and a nutritionalist, til he aged out in october at the age of 3. by then there was concern of autism. he has a tentative dx of autism and we find out the reults of his diagnostic tests and evaluations 1/3/2014. my question has always been, was the autism already there, and the trauma of being taken from familiar surroundings brought it more to the surface? we have wondered about ptsd and autism, can they coincide?

    • Jolene Philo

      Dear Sue, I apologize for the lateness of this reply. I have not heard of a connection between autism and PTSD or whether a traumatic event triggers autism. But a child with autism can be traumatized as can any child.

  • Pingback: PTSD: 8 Symptoms in Adolescents and Teens | Debbie's Story()

  • Noe Venable

    Peter Levine talks in both of the books mentioned above about the link between PTSD and autism spectrum disorders. He says that PTSD can look a lot like autism spectrum disorders in terms of how it presents, and he also says that he suspects that a lot of what is diagnosed as Autism / Aspergers may really be untreated PTSD. Food for thought… In any case, I cannot say enough good things about Levine’s work. Our three year old had severe PTSD as a result of multiple invasive medical procedures. I started using putting Levine’s ideas into practice in our home a little over a year ago, and our son is now doing SO much better. Most of his old triggers hardly phase him now. But more importantly, we as a family now now how to help him when he DOES get triggered, and he’s learning to use these tools himself. I’m so grateful to have discovered Levine’s books. They have brought my family through and out of a very, very dark time.

  • Pingback: 8 Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children and Teens - Therapists Online Therapists Online()

  • Ashley Nicholle

    Hello. My 9month old has been to 5 different sitters, 2 of which are family. The 6th sitter (the last one at that) for one week she watched our daughter. Monday through Friday. My fiance would drop off in the morning and I would pick up. Monday was fine. Seemed normal. Overall she is a really good baby and all of our sitters before the last have found real jobs and or is moving out of state, or also work and is unavailable, no negative feedback.. only positive. Come Tuesday, I pick up, and our daughter is crying.. so I think maybe she just woke up or hungry.. Wednesday, the same.. crying at pick up.. Thursday, my fiance dropped off and called me, asked if she has ever cried. And I said yes. And he said she cried like she didn’t want him to go.. so Friday, he dropped off and had the blanket over her carseat, and she let out a high pitched scream at the sound of the 6th sitters voice. I got this phone call from him and immediately called everyone who has watched her before to go pick her up. Her aunt came through. Thankfully. I got off at 3 and got a phone call asking if it we’re normal for her to nap. At this time she had fallen asleep at 2pm.. she stayed asleep all night, felt warm, wouldn’t stay awake long enough to eat or play.. we rushed her to urgent care, the Dr suggested to take her to the er, because he felt she had been drugged, er results came back negative. Still at this point she is still lethargic. Saturday, same behavior. Sunday she played some and took a nap, woke up with a 101.9 fever. Rushed her to children’s, her test for flu or RSV came back negative. Now she is having trouble going to bed at night and avoiding naps. Could this be a result of a traumatic experience with the sitter?! I don’t think her behavior is from a virus. Need answers. How do I know for sure!? I want to legal action against this sitter if so.


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