Serve and Return

What Is Serve and Return?

How can parents and caregivers help babies make sense of the world around them? You may not realize this, but you probably are already doing one of the best practices for your baby’s brain development: something called serve and return. This refers to the back-and-forth interactions that you have with your baby during your everyday routine. When you and your baby pass different forms of communication back and forth (e.g., eye contact, smiling, babbling, pointing), it strengthens the connections in your baby’s brain and helps to build a strong foundation for future success. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child explains serve and return this way: "when young children 'serve up' a chance to engage with them, it’s important to 'return' with attention."

Give It a Try!

So where do you start? As a parent or caregiver, you can try to approach an interaction with your baby as a conversation. After noticing your baby’s communication (verbal or non-verbal), try responding in turn. Once you have responded, allow a pause for their next communication.

For example, your baby looks at a toy on the floor. You point at the toy and name it. Your baby responds by wiggling her arms. You bring the toy closer to your baby and she picks it up.

Both you and your baby are taking turns communicating with one another. How many times can you take turns in an interaction?

Remember that when your baby communicates by turning their head away or crying, these are also serves! You might return these serves by moving on to a different activity or soothing them with a favourite lullaby. Every time you engage in serve and return interactions with your little one, you are helping them make sense of the language and experiences around them.

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