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How Infants Interpret the Word "NO"

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babyInfants are very good thinkers by eight months; they think through their many senses, about what they see and hear. They are literal and concrete thinkers!!! They are able to use their many senses to organize their behavior and their actions. So you can see why you may get the desired result when you say “no,” but in reality the message infants take from that experience is that your voice and the sound indicate disapproval and concern. This guides them (more or less but not in all these words) to read into that “I’m getting attention from my favorite person so I’ll startle and hold back my impulse to touch.”

That is a good thing. It is not the actual word “no” they think about, but the strong perception of what that sound means. Babies are very smart, but while they get the message, it has to be reinvented in their mind every time they hear it. By the time they learn to say “ma” or “dada” at the end of the first year or even several months thereafter, they will also learn to imitate the word “no” and thereafter, let the games begin!!!! One year-olds love to play the game parents started when they said “no.” Only now the roles are reversed! Now the smart little toddler is telling her parents that she is in control and wants them to react.

As long as toddlers get lots of adult attention for words, they learn to give up the screams and other forms of frustrated preverbal communication for real words. My research shows that words come earlier and replace actions like screaming and tantrums if parents can get their infants into social situations where there are other toddlers and children to model after and imitate. Another good trick is to encourage older babies to do more self-feeding as it strengthens oral musculature and gives them satisfaction in doing things that comfort themselves.

I know a toddler who screamed for three months, starting at about six months of age, and was a noisy infant as well. She yelled and cried constantly according to the parents, until I showed dad and mom how to bring her to their kitchen table, put real food on her high chair tray and let her at it! She turned on the big smile and hasn’t stopped smiling 10 years later. She just wanted to join the family action and didn’t know how to participate without words. She was and is a very sociable personality.

Babies learn language through adult-toddler interactions, repetition and imitation. They do not model other children’s words with nearly the frequency that they model adult speech. More often, they learn language as early as you are willing to play their imitation and repetition games. So, you can imagine how marvelous it is that babies can regulate their own sensory inputs and outputs so early in life and use words to replace actions.

Ask Dr. Susan