Your baby smiles at you and you smile back. Or you make a scene enthusiastically babbling back and forth with her in the supermarket line. Aside from generating warmth and connection (and maybe a few amused stares), these “serve and return” interactions are crucial because they literally shape her brain!
How Serve and Return Affects Brain Development
According to the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, every time your baby “serves” you a cue and you “return” it with an engaging response, new neural connections form. These neural connections build her “brain architecture” and are the foundation for all future development.
Serve and return is one aspect of the overall attachment between a baby and her parents or caregivers. A lack of consistent, loving responsiveness can result in important neural pathways never forming, or fading away from lack of stimulation. Research also shows that babies feel distress when their attempts to connect with a parent or caregiver are persistently ignored.
Benefits of Serve and Return
Serve and return affects all aspects of a baby’s development, including intellectual, social, emotional, physical, behavioral and moral. Regularly interacting with parents and caregivers in rich and meaningful ways is correlated with self-confidence, stable mental health, motivation to learn, educational and workplace achievement, impulse control, conflict resolution skills, ethical behavior, developing and maintaining relationships, and children eventually becoming successful parents themselves.
Examples of Serve and Return
Serve and return interactions will be important throughout your baby’s life, and will evolve as she matures and her brain functioning becomes more complex.
Like every aspect of development, serve and return progresses in stages with each stage building on the one before. Some of the first things your baby will “serve” you are eye-contact, smiles, and coos. Your “return” may be a smile, sweet word, or loving touch. When she starts babbling, your responses become more complex as you babble back while making different facial expressions. When she starts to point, you label the objects she points at. When she learns to draw, you ask about her drawing. Before you know it she’s a teenager, and although serve and return has become much more complicated than returning a coo, it continues to positively affect her still-developing brain.
Maximizing Opportunities for Serve and Return
Babies naturally seek interaction by making sounds, expressions and movements. Responding to these actions is the best way to engage in serve and return with your baby. You won’t be able to do this 100 percent of the time, but overall responsiveness is the key.
If other adults help care for your baby, you can explain the importance of these interactions and request that they engage with your baby as much as possible.
Limiting screen time promotes serve and return. The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child points out that there is no scientific support for claims that certain electronic games and videos positively affect development. In fact, screen time takes away from the individualized aspect of serve and return, which is tailored to a baby’s unique personality, interests, needs and capabilities.
Speaking of electronics, our BabySparks app doesn’t involve any screen time for your baby but does offer hundreds of instructional videos for activities you can do with your baby—every one of which involves serve and return. These activities are designed to nurture different areas of your baby’s development while encouraging brain-boosting back-and-forth between you!