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Developing gestures for no and yes: Head shaking and nodding in infancy

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Abstract

yes and no, or acceptance and refusal, are widespread communicative skills that are common across cultures. Although nodding and shaking the head are common ways to express these seemingly simple responses, these gestures develop later than others such as pointing. We analyzed diary observations from eight infants to investigate the origins of these gestures, why they develop later than other early gestures, and why nodding the head to indicate yes develops later than shaking the head for no. We found that young infants were able to shake their heads side-to-side, but they did not use this movement to communicate refusals at first. Infants had difficulty learning the nodding movement, but they could perform the physical movement before using it to communicate yes. These gestures developed along different trajectories with shaking the head for no emerging between 13 and 15 months and nodding for yes between 16 and 18 months.
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Developing gestures for no and yes
Head shaking and nodding in infancy
Viktoria A. Kettner and Jeremy I. M. Carpendale
Simon Fraser University
Yes and no, or acceptance and refusal, are widespread communicative skills that
are common across cultures. Although nodding and shaking the head are com-
mon ways to express these seemingly simple responses, these gestures develop
later than others such as pointing. We analyzed diary observations from eight
infants to investigate the origins of these gestures, why they develop later than
other early gestures, and why nodding the head to indicate yes develops later than
shaking the head for no. We found that young infants were able to shake their
heads side-to-side, but they did not use this movement to communicate refus-
als at rst. Infants had diculty learning the nodding movement, but they could
perform the physical movement before using it to communicate yes. ese ges-
tures developed along dierent trajectories with shaking the head for no emerg-
ing between 13 and 15 months and nodding for yes between 16 and 18 months.
Keywords: infancy, infant communicative development, gesture, head nodding,
head shaking
Introduction
Yes and no, or accepting and refusing, are essential social acts that in most cultures
can be performed as simply as nodding or shaking one’s head. Although they can
be accomplished dierently in various cultures, communicating yes and no would
seem to be required as key aspects of human interaction across cultures, and be-
ing able to do so appropriately has implications for maintaining relationships and
the webs of interpersonal obligations which we inhabit. For example, socially
competent adults learn how to refuse invitations in ways that preserve relation-
ships (Turnbull & Saxton, 1997). e study of negation in child language gener-
ally begins with sentences children produce (Bloom, 1970; McNeill & McNeill,
1968), but long before children can produce sentences they can express refusal and
Gesture : (), 193–209.  ./gest...ket
 – / - – © John Benjamins Publishing Company
© 2013. John Benjamins Publishing Company
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194 Viktoria A. Kettner and Jeremy I. M. Carpendale
rejection. No can be used to perform a variety of social acts including refusal, de-
nial, and prohibition. Children start using the word no early in development, but
learning the complex process of negation takes some time (Choi, 1991). Perhaps
the simplest use of no is when an infant is oered something and refuses it. is
is the category of negation that Volterra and Antinucci (1979) refer to as refusals.
Most simply, this can be accomplished by turning away. Another use of no is in
response to a yes-no question (Volterra & Antinucci, 1979). is is also a situation
in which infants learn how to indicate yes.
Nodding and shaking the head side to side are gestures that are most oen as-
sociated with the responses of yes and no. Shaking the head side to side is usually
thought of as a gesture that can be used interchangeably with the word no, but, in
fact, as described by Kendon (2002), adults use this gesture in many dierent ways,
such as for emphasis. Nonetheless, aer an analysis of the use of head shaking in
various contexts, Kendon (2002) found that this gesture “can always be interpreted
as expressing a ‘theme’ of negation” (p. 148).
To adults, yes and no appear to be among the simplest of communicative acts.
Yet nodding for yes and shaking the head for no are acquired several months aer
other important gestures such as pointing, and therefore seem to be more dicult
to learn.
Children with autism have diculty with using yes as a generalized armative
response; it is “a concept that it takes the children many years to acquire” (Kanner,
1943, p. 241). Indicating yes and no by nodding and shaking one’s head are rarely
seen in children with autism and learning no is acquired earlier than yes (Pedersen
& Schelde, 1997). In cases in which yes is learned it may be restricted to specic sit-
uations rather than used as a general armation (Fay, 1982). According to Kanner
(1943), for example, one of the children with autism in his case studies learned to
associate yes with getting up on his father’s shoulders and it took several months
for him to disassociate it from this specic context. At the same time, instead of us-
ing the word yes, he repeated the question he was asked as an armative response.
Adults can use yes and no in complex interactions, but there are far simpler
cases that we would expect to appear much earlier in development. For example,
a parent might ask an infant if he or she wants a cracker. A question like this can
also oen occur aer the infant has made an ambiguous request and the parent
may attempt to clarify by asking, “Do you want this?” With an older child yes or no
would be the expectable response, but before children learn to respond this way,
they may learn how to indicate yes and no, acceptance and refusal, with gestures
and words.
Most research on children’s understanding of no has focused on older chil-
dren and verbal negation (e.g., Cameron-Faulkner, Lieven, & eakston, 2007)
and the few studies that look at younger children tend to focus on the use, and
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Developing gestures for no and yes 195
combination, of gestures and words of armation and negation towards the end
of the second year of life (e.g., Guidetti, 2005). In the current study, we analyzed
early armative and refusal behaviours as well as the emergence and development
of nodding for yes and shaking the head for no, by studying infants between the
ages of 35 weeks and 30 months.
Origins of head gestures
Gestures can be conventional such as waving one’s hand to indicate good-bye, or
they may arise from natural reactions rooted in common ways of human inter-
action, such as a reaching hand or a raised st, and thus might be expected to
be similar across cultures. For example, the “arms up” gesture may originate in
infants’ actions of reaching toward a parent (Lock, 1978) and an infant making
a request with an extended arm and opening and closing ngers seems to have
a natural origin in the action of reaching toward a desired object that is then re-
sponded to by others.
In speculating on the origins of head shaking and nodding, Darwin
(1872/1998) was aware that these gestures are not universal across cultures, based
on his informants’ reports about other cultures. For example, in Bulgaria, nodding
means no and shaking one’s head means yes. In Southern Italy, negation can be
indicated with the Neapolitan head toss (head jerk up and backwards) (Morris,
Collett, Marsh, & O’Shaughnessy, 1979; Jakobson, 1972). e head toss for no
is used in parts of Italy occupied by ancient Greeks, and the only other places
in Europe where it is also used to indicate negation today are Greece and sur-
rounding countries such as Turkey and Bulgaria (Kita, 2009; Morris et al., 1979).
Moreover, Jakobson (1972) noted that “Russians could, without great eort, switch
over to the Bulgarian style for the signs of armation and negation(p. 92). is
shows the complexity in looking at cultural dierences as an indication of whether
a gesture has a natural or conventional origin.
In spite of this evidence of some diversity across cultures, Darwin (1872/1998)
suggested that nodding and shaking one’s head to indicate yes and no, respectively,
“seem too general to be ranked as altogether conventional or articial” (p. 274).
Furthermore, he noted that no responses across cultures seem to be more consis-
tent than yes responses. Darwin argued that, “the opposite gestures of armation
and negation, namely, vertically nodding or laterally shaking the head, have both
probably had a natural beginning” (p. 65). He noted that:
With infants, the rst act of denial consists in refusing food; and I repeatedly no-
ticed with my own infants, that they did so by withdrawing their heads laterally
from the breast, or from anything oered to them in a spoon. In accepting food
and taking it into their mouths, they inclined their heads forwards. (p. 273)
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196 Viktoria A. Kettner and Jeremy I. M. Carpendale
Spitz (1957) similarly attempted to base shaking one’s head for no and nodding
for yes on natural reactions derived from the universal experience of nursing. He
believed that the head-shaking no gesture developing at 15 months had a precur-
sor in infants’ rooting. He traced the head shaking motor pattern back to the root-
ing gesture and the nodding movement to the approach movement to the breast,
where sucking movements while nursing are similar to head-nodding in adults.
He suggested that these gestures arise “in ontogenesis … but for mechanical rea-
sons” (p. 109).
In a study of gesture use in congenitally blind and sighted children, Iverson,
Tencer, Lany, and Goldin-Meadow (2000) found that blind and sighted children
displayed a similar use of shaking the head for no, waving for ‘hi’ or ‘bye-bye, and
clapping with excitement, but nodding the head for yes was absent among blind
children. Another study by Bruce, Mann, Jones, and Gavin (2007) conrmed these
results, as they found that nodding for yes was the only gesture absent in 4- to
8-year-old congenitally blind children, who were observed to use at least 24 types
of other gestures by this age. In contrast, Darwin (1872/1998) described a blind
and deaf woman accompanying her no responses with the “negative shake of the
head” and her yes responses with the “armative nod” (p. 273).
To further investigate the origins of these gestures, researchers have studied
wild as well as captive non-human primates and their use of head gestures. In
terms of the movements themselves, both wild and captive chimpanzees and goril-
las have been observed nodding as well as shaking their heads (Hobaiter & Byrne,
2011). African great apes primarily use head shaking in the context of soliciting
play (Schneider, Call, & Liebal, 2010). In addition to the context of playing, bono-
bos have been observed to use side-to-side head shaking when attempting to get
infants to stop what they were doing (i.e., in prohibitory contexts) (Schneider et
al., 2010). It is not clear in what context nodding, or the “head bob”, is used by non-
human primates, except in the general context of play (Call & Tomasello, 2007;
Tomasello, Call, Nagell, Olguin, & Carpenter, 1994).
If Darwin (1872/1998) and Spitz (1957) are correct about the origins of nod-
ding and shaking the head, it is not clear why infants only master these gestures
several months aer other early gestures such as pointing. Our goal in this study
was to chart the development of early behaviours that function as acceptance and
refusal, as well as the emergence and use of nodding for yes and shaking the head
for no in order to evaluate such claims regarding the origin of these gestures in
natural reactions, and to explore why they, and nodding in particular, appear to be
dicult social acts to master.
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Developing gestures for no and yes 197
Method
Mothers were recruited through a description of the study on a parenting website
and through word of mouth. Interested parents attended an information session
in which the research was described in more detail as a longitudinal diary study of
the development of infants’ communication. Mothers were asked to record diary
observations of their infants’ communication. Rather than predened time sam-
pling periods, they were asked to note changes in the way their infants communi-
cate. ese changes are noticeable and this approach is appropriate for studying
rare but important developments in the emergence of patterns of action that might
otherwise be missed (i.e., ad libitum sampling, Braunwald & Brislin, 1979; Gómez,
2010; Martin & Bateson, 1993).
A total of 24 mothers started diaries. Recording suciently detailed observa-
tions in the midst of a busy family life requires motivation and talent. e obser-
vations could not just consist of mothers’ conclusions about the communication
that was occurring but had to include adequate detail regarding the circumstances
in order for the researchers to draw conclusions. Mothers’ recorded observations
varied in detail and frequency. Although many of the mothers were interested in
the research and were talented observers, seven mothers did not provide enough
detail in their observations and stopped early for various reasons such as the de-
mands of caring for an infant and working. All of the families were middle-class
families from a large western Canadian city. All of the infants were full-term, with-
out any medical or cognitive problems. In the current study we present selected
observations from the mothers of eight infants that are most relevant for the ques-
tions we address. Two of these mothers taught their infants several “baby signs.
Results and discussion
We rst examine selected diary observations of infants’ head shaking, rejection,
and refusal, and then turn to nodding and armation.
Head shaking, rejection, and refusal
e movement of shaking the head side to side is easy to do for infants, and they
are able to shake their heads this way from early on. However, the earliest displays
of head shaking are not clearly associated with refusal or rejection. According
to Spitz (1957), for example, when “the stimulus consists in the maternal breast
touching his face, the infant will rotate his head from right to le and back again
in a number of rapid sweeps, his mouth half open, until the mouth encounters the
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198 Viktoria A. Kettner and Jeremy I. M. Carpendale
nipple and the lips close around it” and this behaviour “can be elicited immediately
aer birth” (p. 20). is head movement seems to be very similar to the motor
movement of shaking the head for no, but Spitz (1957) describes this as an “orien-
tation behaviour” (p. 20). We found that throughout the rst year, infants tend to
shake their heads in random situations, sometimes in a playful way.
NR [32 weeks]: A few days ago N started shaking his head back and forth. He only
does this if his head is touching something such as when he is in his car seat or
leaning up against me or when on the change table. He just shakes his head back
and forth for no apparent reason. It seems to occur more oen when he is happy
or laughing.
IS [47 weeks]: For example, when we are feeding her with a spoon, sometimes she
will wait until the spoon is close to her mouth and then she will do this funny (yet
subtle) shake of her head before taking a huge “Tiger” bite (exaggerated, fast and
snappy).
Similarly, Masur (1980) found that “headshaking [was] oen rst used in imitative
and game routines with the mother, before [it] became communicative” (p. 123). In
the earliest observations, along with seemingly meaningless headshaking, mothers
also talked about situations where their infants’ head shaking seemed to be more
appropriate, but mothers were not condent about the communicative meaning
of these responses.
AI [43 weeks] A new behaviour I noted at nap time was a head shaking that
seemed like he was meaning to indicate “no. He didn’t seem to want to nap and
was quite excited and moving a lot so at one point he started shaking his head and
then I said “no” you don’t want to nap now? “No” and shook my head and then he
continued to do this alternating with watching me and waiting until I had paused
and then he would shake his head.
AQ [13 months] I said “Can you say mama?” and she looked at me with a sort of
sly look and shook her head. It really did look like she meant to say no, but since
she’s never shaken her head in response to a question before, I can’t be sure — she
may have just been goong around.
As infants became more independent and started to move around on their own,
prohibition involving the parents saying no and shaking their heads became more
common and some of the mothers wrote about their infants learning head shaking
and no in this context. For example, TH’s mother describes him using head shak-
ing “appropriately”, but she refers to prohibitory situations, rather than to refusals
or responses to yes or no questions.
TH [47 weeks] He also shakes his head “no”–he uses it appropriately and repeats it
when we say no to him — although he doesn’t necessarily obey it!
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Developing gestures for no and yes 199
e following observation illustrates AI’s early reaction to his mother’s head shak-
ing in a prohibitory context:
AI [43 weeks] When he is eating food and he doesn’t want anymore he spits it
out and so I’ve been saying “no” and shaking my head quite oen. He seems to
observe this behaviour quite carefully and intently lately.
Even though infants were observed shaking their heads in a number of dierent
situations and contexts, this movement did not seem to be clearly associated with
rejection or refusal at rst. Instead, infants displayed various behaviours that func-
tioned as refusal or rejection. Mothers reported a number of such behaviours and
actions that were clear in communicating refusal and rejection, including crying,
resisting, pushing objects away, turning their heads to the side once, or throwing
the head backwards.
IS [47 weeks] She rejected the grape, pushing my hand aside and then looked and
pointed at the avocado shell again.
NR [13 months] When he really doesn’t want something you are giving to him, he
throws out his arm to block it or push it away.
Even though infants’ parents understood these behaviours as refusals, infants are
not likely to be aware of this communicative meaning at rst. ey react physi-
cally, trying to remove the unwanted object or resisting unwanted acts of their
parents, instead of using gestures or words to communicate their refusal (Caneld,
2007; Hobaiter & Byrne, 2011). Even though these interactions might involve lan-
guage when parents ask questions as they oer something, infants do not seem to
be responding to language, but rather to what is happening around them, that is,
to their parents’ actions towards them. ey see an undesired object being oered
by their parent and they push it away.
In addition to these natural responses, idiosyncratic gestures for no seemed to
emerge within specic dyads:
AQ [12 months] She has always rejected food by turning her head to the right (and
only to the right). She used to cry while she did it, but now it’s just a quick head
jerk to the side and I know she’s not going to eat it.
Even as infants start to expect their parents’ responses and as their own reactions
become more stylized and ecient as illustrated in the observation above, at this
point infants are still reacting to what is happening around them, not to a question
or the previous utterance.
When infants start to request objects by reaching or pointing, it is oen not
clear what they want and at this point parents tend to ask, “Is this what you want?”
Responding to a question like this, especially if the object is out of reach, requires a
© 2013. John Benjamins Publishing Company
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200 Viktoria A. Kettner and Jeremy I. M. Carpendale
response that is dierent from turning the head or pushing something away in or-
der to avoid it. As infants are becoming more independent and start to learn to talk,
parents also start to ask questions such as “Do you want to go outside?” Contexts
such as these provide the opportunity for infants to learn to respond in conven-
tional ways, and to start responding to the previous utterance, instead of directly to
what is happening around them. e following observation of NR describes one of
the rst times he used head shaking in response to a yes or no question:
NR [14 months] I always ask him if he wants a certain food, more of a certain food
or if he wants his milk. It seems mostly like rhetorical questions since he doesn’t
vocally answer me and only sometimes does he sign. Tonight was no dierent
than any other night so I asked him, “Would you like your milk.” What was dier-
ent this time was he actually shook his head no! He had his chin tucked into his
chest and he was looking down. He swung his head side to side loosely. It was very
clear he was saying “no.
When infants start to use shaking their heads side to side in response to questions,
it oen seems that they are doing this in adult like ways and that they are aware of
what it means to shake their heads in response to a yes or no question. Although
this might be true for questions that are directly about objects or events in the
infant’s immediate environment, infants tend to overuse head shaking in response
to questions that they do not seem to understand:
IS [16 months] She has started saying “Noaccompanied by a gentle head shake,
typically in response to a Yes/No question. However, we’re not sure that she actu-
ally understands the concept yet, since she seems to say “No” to everything:
M: Do you like cookies?
I: No (shakes head)
M: Do you like juice?
I: No (shakes head)
M: Do you love mama?
I: No (shakes head)
M: Do you love papa?
I: No (shakes head)
At this stage, toddlers seem to show familiarity with the routine of “I shake my
head in response to questions” — utterances with certain intonations — before
they gradually become aware of what their responses mean within these dialogues
(i.e., how others respond to them), which then allows them to use head shaking
and nodding in a more appropriate way. For all of the infants in our diary study,
shaking the head for no emerged between 13 and 15 months. However, complete
understanding of the meaning of this gesture in response to the previous utterance
seems to require more time to achieve.
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Developing gestures for no and yes 201
Nodding and armation
According to Fusaro and Vallotton (2011), both head shaking and nodding are
gross motor skills and therefore should develop earlier than ne motor skills such
as pointing. Yet, similar to our ndings, these authors found that pointing emerged
between 7 and 13 months, headshaking between 13 and 15 months, and nodding
between 14.5 and 16.5 months.
Darwin (1872/1998) observed that “in accepting or taking food, there is only
a single movement forward, a single nod implies an armation(p. 273), and he
believed that this movement might be the origin of nodding for yes. We found
that nodding repeatedly or even just once was not mentioned by any of the par-
ents among early armative behaviours displayed by their infants. Instead, infants
seem to go through several phases in learning the motor movement of nodding
and its use as a yes response.
Similar to early refusal behaviours, infants were observed to display early
behaviours that functioned as armative responses. at is, parents understood
these as armatives, even if infants might not have been aware of this communica-
tive meaning at rst. Again, similar to refusals, these behaviours were in response
to what was happening around the infant, to parents’ actions, and not to the previ-
ous utterance. e following observations are examples of these early behaviours.
AI [12 months] …then I picked up the other cheddar cheese and he started to get
excited and waved his hands up and down at his sides and when I brought it to
him he ate it happily.
Getting excited and waving the arms up and down were early behaviours that par-
ents understood as armative. However, even though these functioned as ar-
matives, they seemed to remain natural responses as infants became excited and
happy in response to what was happening. In contrast to a number of the mothers
mentioning idiosyncratic gestures developing between them and their infants for
refusals, none of the mothers indicated this for armative responses. In the fol-
lowing observation, AQ is still simply responding to what is happening around
her. Although excitement that is described by AI’s mother in the previous observa-
tion was a frequent response to something infants wanted, a more subtle compli-
ance and “just going along with it” was oen mentioned by mothers as well. at
is, a lack of no functioned as yes.
AQ [12 months] If I oer water, she’ll either take it or turn her head. If I say, “let’s
go change your diaper” she’ll either just let me do it, or she’ll struggle. So, for now,
I think she either says yes by being compliant or accepting my oer, or she says
no by resisting.
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202 Viktoria A. Kettner and Jeremy I. M. Carpendale
As infants’ understanding of language developed, they became able to respond
to simple sentences or utterances referring to objects as well. For example, IS re-
sponds to her mother’s question with smiles in the following observation:
IS [42 weeks] When I ask her if she wants some water (signing “water”), she typi-
cally shis her gaze from me to the sippy cup and then smiles or grins.
And GC showed excitement with his “yes wiggle.
GC [12 months] en yesterday I noticed that his reach was dierent, so his index
nger was pointing at the box of stoned wheat thins. So I asked if that was what he
wanted and he did his yes wriggle.
In contrast, the following observation illustrates DF responding to a question by
acting on it:
DF [21 months] He was sitting in his high chair today and I asked him if he was
done and wanted to get out. He didn’t ‘say’ anything, but responded by starting to
unbuckle himself.
As illustrated by the above observation of DF, oen infants’ and toddlers’ arma-
tive responses are more functional or practical, rather than having the purpose of
responding to a question or communicating the infant’s wants or needs. At this
stage, even though toddlers were able to “not say no” to something they wanted,
they did not seem to know how to say yes” yet. In response to this lack of clear yes
response, at 14 months, GC’s mother intentionally taught him to nod his head to
indicate his yes response:
When he wanted something, which he used to show by reaching even more when
I nally touched his object of interest, I would say, “this? yes?” (nod nod until he
nodded) and then give it to him.
In the current study we found that for toddlers, the motor movement of nodding
the head forward and back in a repeated fashion involved intentionally and delib-
erately trying to move the head the right way.
IS [17 months] Aer dropping her chin to her chest for the rst part of the nod-
ding gesture, it looks like her head is really really heavy and it takes great eorts to
li it back up to its original position. It makes the gesture look forced, awkward,
and deliberate.
It might be thought that nodding may be delayed because of this diculty with
the physical movement or the fact that the infant cannot see herself perform the
action. But the following observation does not support this view.
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Developing gestures for no and yes 203
IS [15 months]. I said to her “Can you do this?” and then I shook my head. I waited
a few seconds and then she successfully copied. I then said, “Can you do this?” and
nodded my head. Again, a few seconds later, she copied. She did seem to nd the
nodding more dicult, but she did it. I have tried to get her to do this before, but
she didn’t respond. She just found it very funny!
Even though the nodding movement was more dicult for IS to do, similar to
other infants in our diary study, IS could perform the nodding action at least 2
months before she mastered the social skill of using it to indicate yes. erefore a
diculty with the movement of nodding does not seem to constitute a full expla-
nation for the delayed emergence of armative responses in infancy.
In addition, nodding is only one aspect of learning to respond in an armative
way, yet none of the mothers mentioned any other stylized armative responses
or gestures that might have developed between infants and their caregivers. is
is in contrast to refusals, for which dierent idiosyncratic gestures seemed to de-
velop within specic dyads, such as a quick head turn to the side or waving the
arm back and forth in front of the chest.
Six of the infants started to indicate yes with nodding between 16 and 18
months. Interestingly, only GC, who was explicitly taught by his mother, learned
to nod at the age of 14 months. For the eighth infant, DF, nodding emerged at the
age of 22 months. DF’s mother reported that she was intentionally avoiding teach-
ing yes and nodding as she was curious about when her son would feel the need
to use yes responses. All of the other mothers reported some teaching and model-
ing of yes and nodding behaviour, but less consistently, and without necessarily
requiring their infants to copy the movement. Interestingly, DF had a hard time
with learning the nodding movement as well, even though he was several months
older than the other infants:
DF [22 months] He was drinking orange juice and when he nished I asked him if
he wanted some more. He nodded, but instead of just nodding with his head, his
whole body seemed to be moving. It seemed like he had to put a lot of energy into
his nodding as he was trying to get it right.
As toddlers’ vocabulary started to grow, they started to respond to questions using
language and words, but these responses were still not the conventional yes that we
would expect from an older child or adult.
IS [16 months] At the moment, if I ask her if she’d like a cracker, and she does in
fact want one, she will smile and with enthusiasm, gesture ‘cracker’.
Similar to the above observation of IS, four other toddlers were observed repeating
a word or baby sign from the previous utterance in response to a yes-no question
and this emerged between 15 and 17 months. In other words, instead of saying yes
© 2013. John Benjamins Publishing Company
All rights reserved
204 Viktoria A. Kettner and Jeremy I. M. Carpendale
or nodding, toddlers used words that referred to the world more directly. is type
of response was also observed and described by Guidetti (2005), who referred to
these as “labels” (p. 916).
At about the same age, several mothers described their infants being able to
nod and say yes when asked to do it, but not yet using these in response to ques-
tions. In the following observation IS’s mother observed her progress with the
nodding movement, which was at the same age as the above observation of her
repeating the baby sign for “cracker”:
IS [16 months] When we ask her to say yes she will nod her head, but she still
doesn’t nod her head to mean yes without prompting.
Around the same time, IS’s mother also observed IS nodding aer she got what
she wanted. It seems that, at this point, she had started to understand the asso-
ciation between nodding and getting what she wanted, but, again, not yet using
this gesture to communicate her response to yes-no questions. GC’s mother who
taught him to nod at the age of 14 months also observed him nodding in the right
context, but not in response to a question:
GC [14 months] is evening he reached toward and pointed at the cheese grater
and nodded his head.
e following observations illustrate how infants might start to learn about re-
sponding in appropriate ways:
IS [15 months] We have been encouraging her to nod her head as an armative
response to the question ‘Do you want…[juice]’?
[16 months] When we ask if she wants something, but she says “No” (even though
we know she DOES want it), we try to model “Yes” accompanied by a head nod.
When we do this, she will oen copy and nod her head and then we respond by
oering her the desired object.
AQ [16 months] A still answers most questions with a head shake (no), even if the
answer is clearly yes. However, more and more, if I ask her something and I know
the answer is yes, she’ll stop for a second, look at me, and she seems to think ‘okay,
I don’t want to shake my head to this…what do I do?’ en I’ll say ‘A, can you say
yes?’ and she’ll nod her head and say ‘esss.
Although nodding for yes and shaking the head for no seem to be simple ways to
communicate acceptance and refusal, these gestures develop several months aer
other gestures such as pointing, and, interestingly, learning a gesture or word for
yes emerges several months aer learning a gesture or word for no. For example,
one infant had learned 36 words, including the word no, by the age of 15 months
and was using 100 words at the age of 17 months, yet still had not learned a gesture
© 2013. John Benjamins Publishing Company
All rights reserved
Developing gestures for no and yes 205
or word for yes. Nodding and shaking seem to be similar movements of the head
and they appear to fall in the same category of social acts and level of diculty, but
they develop along dierent trajectories.
Conclusion
e rst question we investigated was whether nodding and shaking the head
from side to side to indicate yes and no, respectively, have natural origins or are
“altogether conventional or articial” (Darwin, 1872/1998, p. 274). is is related
to the second question concerning why these gestures, especially nodding, de-
velop months aer other gestures. Both Darwin (1872/1998) and Spitz (1957) at-
tempted to base the emergence of these gestures on the early feeding behaviours
of infants, in accepting or refusing food. In the current study neither nodding nor
shaking the head in conventional ways were among the earliest natural arma-
tive and refusal responses displayed by infants. is is even though infants were
physically able to shake their heads from early on. Young infants are able to avoid
or refuse something unpleasant in a number of ways. Turning the head to one side
was mentioned among the responses indicating refusal, but there is still some de-
velopmental distance between a head turn and shaking the head. Behaviours that
functioned as refusal and rejection included turning the head to the side once,
crying, resisting, throwing the head backwards, and various idiosyncratic gestures
that emerged within specic dyads. Darwin (1872/1998) noted that “in the case
of refusal, the head is not rarely thrown backwards, or the mouth is closed, so
that these movements might likewise come to serve as signs of negation” (p. 273).
Interestingly, throwing the head backwards is a conventional gesture for no in sev-
eral cultures around the world such as Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, and southern Italy
(Darwin, 1872/1998; Morris et al., 1979).
Early behaviours that mothers understood as armative responses included
the eyes lighting up, excitement, smiling, or reaching even harder, whereas nod-
ding was not mentioned by any of the mothers. Although parents understand the
communicative meaning of these early reactions, infants may not at rst be aware
of what these responses mean to others.
Interestingly, whereas many of the mothers reported idiosyncratic gestures de-
veloping for refusal and rejection, none of them mentioned anything like this for
gestures of armation. One possible (and partial) explanation for this might be
that participating in everyday activities and routines provides infants with count-
less opportunities to refuse or reject what is happening to them, and their par-
ents oen respond by removing the object or stopping the ongoing activity. is
provides the opportunity for the infants’ responses to become gestures, as infants
© 2013. John Benjamins Publishing Company
All rights reserved
206 Viktoria A. Kettner and Jeremy I. M. Carpendale
gradually learn how their parents respond to their actions and start to expect these
responses. Once infants become aware of the consequences (or meaning) of their
behaviour for others, it can then become a gesture (Caneld, 2007; Mead, 1934).
According to Pea (1980), “negation has no referent, unlike nominal terms or ad-
jectives (such as color words), and is inherently relational in nature” (p. 156). at
is, unless parents respond to the infant’s early refusal behaviours, these cannot
become gestures of negation.
In contrast to refusal and rejection, mothers oen describe yes as a “lack of
no. ings are happening around the infant, they are being fed, changed, taken
outside, but as long as they have no objection to what is happening, they just go
along with it. ere is no specic response on the infant’s part; therefore, there can
be no response from the parent to the infant. Even if the infant does respond by
showing excitement, this armative behavior will likely not result in any changes
in the parent’s behaviour. us, the early social environment does not seem to
provide opportunities for the emergence of gestures for armation or yes and this
may be why such development is slower relative to other gestures.
Interestingly, even though infants have ample opportunities to develop ges-
tures for no, have no diculty with the motor movement of shaking the head side-
to-side, and are observed to use a single head turn to the side to refuse something,
shaking the head for no still emerges later than other gestures such as pointing.
During the rst year infants were observed to shake their heads side-to-side in a
number of dierent situations in response to what was happening around them,
none of which included refusal or rejection. e earliest observations of head
shaking involved random, sometimes playful situations. Similarly, non-human
primates have been observed to display head shaking to initiate play (Schneider
et al., 2010). Infants were rst observed to use head shaking in a meaningful way
in prohibitory situations, then later in response to the parent pointing at dierent
things in trying to determine what the infant wanted. Once infants started to use
head shaking in response to questions, they then overused it and responded with
this movement to almost any question they were asked. ey then slowly learned
that sometimes nodding is a more appropriate response.
Our analysis suggests that toddlers do not communicate their armative re-
sponses in conventional ways until they become participants in conversations that
require turn-taking. Nodding one’s head or saying yes is a general armative that
refers to the previous utterance or oer, not directly to the world. is may be
an additional complexity regarding this response that makes it dicult for young
infants to learn. At rst infants respond to these questions (usually questions that
refer to an object in sight, etc.) with natural responses such as apping their arms
in excitement, then by referring to the world more directly by repeating the baby
sign or word. For example, at 16 months when IS was asked if she wanted a cracker
© 2013. John Benjamins Publishing Company
All rights reserved
Developing gestures for no and yes 207
she signed cracker, indicating that she did want one, but she did not nod her head
or say yes. Even though she had learned many baby signs, including the sign for
scared, she still had diculty with yes.
erefore, in ontogenesis, it does not seem likely that nodding the head for
yes originates in the movement of the head forward in accepting food in the ear-
ly months of life. at is, nodding the head forward and back does not seem to
be based on infants’ natural reactions. Having less opportunities for gestures for
yes to develop and the fact that infants show diculty with learning the nodding
movement might provide a partial answer to our second question of interest: why
nodding for yes emerges later than shaking the head for no.
As in any study of infants and their families, the mothers participating in the
present study may have been especially interested in their infants’ development
and thus they might have interacted with their infants in ways that diers from
other parents. It might be thought that such dierences could inuence the rate
of development of these gestures, but in this sample we had a range of ages at
which head nodding and shaking developed, and in general these ages t with
the results of other research (Fusaro & Vallotton, 2011). e diary observations
allow us to follow the emergence and development of early refusal and acceptance
behaviours, as well as to examine the dierences between nodding and shaking
the head side-to-side. In further research, longitudinal video recordings of infants
nodding and head shaking would be valuable in replicating maternal observations
and allowing a more in-depth analysis.
e purpose of this study was to investigate the possible origins of shaking
the head for no and nodding for yes, why these gestures develop later than other
gestures such as pointing, as well as why nodding develops later than head shak-
ing. We found that neither of these gestures were among the earliest responses
of armation and refusal for the eight infants in our study. We found no clear
evidence that nodding and head shaking originate in natural reactions, as Darwin
(1872/1998) and Spitz (1957) argued, but we cannot rule out the possibility that
turning the head to the side might be a natural reaction that plays a role in the
origin of shaking the head for no. However, it is far from a simple or direct role, as
in, for example, the arms up gesture, and there is still a complex social act to learn.
With nodding, on the other hand, there is less evidence that a natural reaction
might underlie it. It seems that these gestures develop once infants are required to
answer questions and become participants in conversations that require turn tak-
ing. Even though these two gestures appear to be similar because they are used to
answer yes or no questions, they develop along dierent trajectories. Our analysis
of the diary observations has allowed us to explicate the complexity of the interac-
tions in which these social acts are embedded, which may explain why they are
slow to develop.
© 2013. John Benjamins Publishing Company
All rights reserved
208 Viktoria A. Kettner and Jeremy I. M. Carpendale
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Authors’ address
Viktoria A. Kettner and Jeremy I. M. Carpendale
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University
8888 University Drive
Burnaby, BC
Canada V5A 1S6
vkettner@sfu.ca, jcarpend@sfu.ca
About the authors
Viktoria A. Kettner is an MA student in the Psychology Department at Simon Fraser University.
Her areas of interest include early social and communicative development, and more specically
the development of early gestures. Her current focus of research is the development of pointing.
Jeremy I. M. Carpendale is Professor of Developmental Psychology in the Psychology
Department at Simon Fraser University. His areas of research include social cognitive and mor-
al development. He is author with Charlie Lewis of How children develop social understanding
(2006, Blackwell), and editor of several books including the Cambridge companion to Piaget.
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