Learn to better interact with your child through science of serve and return

The Essentials of Serve and Return

The Essentials of Serve and Return

Key Concepts
1. Serve and return interactions are essential for the healthy development of a child's brain.
2. Follow the five steps to fully engage them: Notice, return, name, take turns, and practice ending and beginnings.
3. You do not have to engage with a child all the time; a child also needs to be bored and allow for self-discovery; however, when you engage, ensure it's meaningful!

Introduction to serve and return?
Early childhood development relies on a consistent interaction (serve and return) between child and caregiver. New neural connections form as a child instinctively "serves" through babbling, moving arms and legs, pointing, words, and facial gestures, and the caregiver responds in a meaningful way. These interactions are critical in forming neural connections between brain areas responsible for behavioural control, motor skills, language, memory, visual and emotional areas. They are the basis that will build all future foundations.

What is an example of serve and return?
In an example of early literacy serve and return, when a baby sees an object and gestures towards it, the caregiver responds with its name. Naming makes connections between the sound and corresponding objects in the baby's brain. At a later stage, the caregiver builds on this by showing a child that objects can also represent these sounds on a page. With continued support, a child learns to read and write eventually.

Five easy steps to serve and return!
1. Notice your child moving their arms and legs, a babble, a coo, a word, pointing a finger, and the shift in the child's focus of attention. This is a serve. By noticing these serves, you let the child know that they are heard and strengthen the bond between you.
2. Return the serve through supporting and encouraging. Return with a facial expression, language such as "I see that, that is a bird," or comfort through a hug. Perhaps pick up an object they are looking at and bring it closer to the child. Supporting a child's curiosity allows them to feel nurtured, knowing that their serve is returned.
3. Name it! When you have made a return about something of interest, make sure you name it. This forms important connections between objects and the sounds associated with them, critical for early language skills. You can say anything such as "peekaboo makes you happy?" "yes, that is a monkey." Naming allows children to understand the world around them and lets them know you care.
4. Take turns and wait for your turn! Let the child process what has happened and wait for them to take their turn; it may take a moment! Waiting allows the child to formulate their response properly.
5. Practice endings and beginnings. Babies and toddlers are great at signaling to you when they are done with an activity; they may avert their gaze if they are babies, drop a toy and wonder somewhere else, or start to fuss. When you allow your child to take the lead in these moments, you support their independence in exploring their world.

What evidence is there that serve and return is so essential?
A great number of studies demonstrate the relationship between serve and return interactions and their impact on a developing child. Several studies have utilized brain imaging technologies to research the influence of nurturing and supportive interactions. For example, a research article by Romeo and his team in 20181 found that through neuroimaging analysis, children who had more serve and return conversational interactions displayed greater activation in the left inferior frontal regions called Broca's area (brain responsible for language). This result demonstrates the relationship between language development and serve and return interaction. Furthermore, Sethna and his team in 20152 found that other areas were also affected when serve and return interactions are insufficient, causing an effect on emotional regulation and socio-emotional functioning.

Not only that, but these serve and return interactions directly dictate actual formation in brain matter! Research by Kok and his team in 20153 found that when a mother was less sensitive to their infants, their babies' brains had a significantly smaller subcortical grey matter volume. 

Do I need to have my attention on my child all the time?
No, you certainly do not! Your child also needs to be bored and allow freedom for self-discovery. However, when you interact with your child, ensure that you focus on them on those moments. When there is a responsive and loving environment, a child will flourish.

Are educational toys and multimedia useful in growing a healthy brain?
The most important interaction with your child is a serve and return interaction; no toys are needed! Research also shows that less is more with toys. Buy less and buy with purpose and use them in a meaningful way. Television/iPad/iPhone are all not recommended for children under three as children engage in passive play rather than active play. 


  1. Romeo, R.R., Leonard, J.A., Robinson, S.T. et al. (2018). Beyond the 30-million-word gap: Children’s conversational exposure is associated with language-related brain function. Psychological Science29(5), 700-710.
  2. Kok, R., Thijssen, S., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. et al. (2015). Normal variation in early parental sensitivity predicts child structural brain development. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry54(10), 824–831.
  3. Sethna, V., Pote, I., Wang, S. et al. (2017). Mother–infant interactions and regional brain volumes in infancy: An MRI study, Brain Structure and Function222, 2379–2388.
  4. Information from Center on the Developing Child. Harvard University. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources


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