What To Do When Babies Don’t Understand No

If you ask Google, “When do babies understand no?”, it’ll show you several articles discussing it. I did it too, and I came to the conclusion that it can be as early as six months.

However, the average age range is 8 to 12 months, says BabyCenter. It’s when they will pause before doing something you told them not to do, and look at you first. If you’re showing disapproval, they may shake their heads and tell themselves, “no.”

It’s about the same time your baby is developing other milestones.

But what if your baby does not seem to understand “no”? How do you teach them that?

Being an educator, I believe we have to start by understanding how an infant learns to comprehend.

So I did my research and found these studies that explain infant learning. You may apply them along with what other recommendations.


Teaching Baby No

mom and kid

#1: Use Natural Language

This is personally an interesting finding for me, being someone fascinated by language. I didn’t know that our natural way of speaking has an impact on our children.

Let me explain further.

Psychologists Katherine Kinzler, Emmanuel Dupoux, and Elizabeth Spelke conducted a series of experiments on infants. This experiment aims to determine whether humans have a natural tendency to choose a person who speaks their own language or not.

Own language is labeled natural language in this study. This means:

  • The manner of speaking is natural

  • The language is the child’s native language

  • The accent is native

How did they do it?

They conducted three experiments. 

In the first one, their purpose is to see how infants would respond to the natural and non-natural way of speaking.

To do so, they asked 22 infants, aged 5 to 6 months to watch films of two adult women speaking in American English. (The babies, by the way, are from American English-speaking families.)

The first woman’s speech was played in the natural manner, meaning it follows the natural speech. The other one was played in reverse. Hence, it has the same accent, but the manner of speaking was non-natural.

Afterward, the women’s faces were shown again but they were no longer speaking. They were just smiling.

What was the result?

While the two women were talking, the infants looked almost equally at the two speakers. However, the infants looked longer at the face of the first woman during the silent test (when they were just smiling).

The researchers took this as human’s innate “preference for people whose prior speech was natural.”

To make sure it is not the face or any visual pattern that influences the babies’ choice, they repeated the test but used animate objects.

The result showed that there was no preference for the “natural-speaking” object.

What does this tell us?

For me, this study tells us that if we want our baby to listen to us and hopefully understand us, use the language and manner of speaking they are familiar with.

In other words, when your baby doesn’t understand no, try to capture her attention using this method.

#2: Use Gestures

A study concludes, “using gestures may assist infants in learning words, and enhanced word comprehension may lead infants to produce more gestures.”

Here’s the background of this study:

Researcher Emily J. Roemer and her colleagues examined the link between gesture and word production. Their participants are 120 infants whose siblings are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

The study measured actions and gestures at 12 and 14 months, word comprehension at 12 and 14 months, and word production at 18 months. The measure used was Macarthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory (CDI).

What are the results?

As mentioned earlier, the infants who could produce more gestures when they were 12 months old had better comprehension scores two months later.

Then these babies (who had higher comprehension scores), produced more words when they turned 18 months.

What does this tell us?

To help our babies understand no, we need to teach by gestures. 

There are different ways you can do that. One, you can wave your index finger from side to side (or do a thumbs down) while saying “no.” Let your child do it as well.

Two, you can very lightly but firmly stop his hand from doing something you don’t want him to do. 

Three, you can use her favorite toy to show the gesture of disapproval.

There are other ways you can teach your baby no. Just keep in mind that you have to let her do the gesture to help her comprehend.

#3: Let Her Sleep

Did you know that sleeping helps our memories?

I didn’t. This is probably why I forget a lot of things.

Anyhoo. Let’s go back to why sleeping will help in teaching baby no by using the study conducted by Manuela Friedrich, Ines Wilhelm, Jan Born, and Angela Friederici.

They invited 90 infants aged from 9 to 16 months, who are not known to have any visual or hearing impairment. 

These infants were then grouped into two: nap group (NG) and no-nap group (NNG). The researchers conducted the experiment on NG infants about an hour or less prior to taking a nap and about three hours for NNG.

The researchers then provided both visual and auditory stimuli that teach words. Then they let the NG go to sleep while the NNG played. After 1-2 hours, the researchers gathered the infants again to test how much newly learned words they retained.

The results of the experiment show that “infants who napped during the retention period, but not infants who stayed awake, remember the specific word meanings.”

What does this tell us?

This study tells us that if we want our babies to understand no, we have to teach the concept prior to falling asleep.

It will help her remember the word faster.

When Do Babies Understand No?


Let’s recap.

Babies usually understand no when they’re at least 8 months old. By the time their 1 year old, they should be able to fully comprehend this concept.

But if you think they still haven’t understood the word, you can try the methods listed above.

Of course, you should ask your doctor about it as well.

Sarah Morgan

Chief editor of WellBeingKid.com and striving mom-extraordinaire.Let me share and inspire you with my daily struggles to live a healthier and more fulfilling life.

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