Did you know that the early development of your baby’s brain lays the foundation for all their future learning? As parents, we know we play an integral part in our baby’s early learning, but what if we told you that all of your everyday experiences with your baby aid in growing their brain?
Although every baby will develop in their own individual way and at their own pace, one thing is certain: babies are born ready to learn! In fact, your baby’s brain is made up of billions of neurons, which need to be connected together in pathways that strengthen over time in order for learning and brain development to take place. What’s more, the first three years of a child’s life are crucial, because this is when they are able to make the most neural connections.
The positive experiences your baby gets from interacting back and forth with you help them to create trillions of connections between brain neurons- and they are so important that the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has coined the term Serve & Return to describe them.
What is Serve and Return?
Imagine a game of tennis or ping pong– and you’ll get the idea. Baby “serves” you with a sweet smile, a loving gaze, or a gesture or noise, and you return that serve with warm and ongoing interactions. Best of all, these interactions shape your baby’s brain architecture and make them ready to develop their communication and social skills. The Center on the Developing Child points out that these back-and-forth interactions are not only fun, but actually help to build your baby’s learning capacities.
What does Serve and Return Look Like?
These sweet moments are likely happening all the time, perhaps without you even realizing it! Here are some examples of what Serve and Return can look like between you and your baby:
- Your baby makes eye contact with you, and you engage with a warm smile
- You see baby reaching for a favorite toy, and you ask “What’s that?”
- Baby smiles at you, and you laugh, causing baby to laugh back!
All of these interactions are wonderful ways for you to bond with your baby, and best of all, they are critical moments in your baby’s development where baby’s favorite learning toy is you! Responding to your baby’s serves creates a safe and encouraging environment where they can feel secure and loved, allowing their brain the proper conditions for optimal development.
Tips to Enhance Serve and Return Interactions
- Look out for baby’s “serves.” Serve and Return is all about reciprocity, so the first thing we encourage you to do is to notice your baby’s serves. Focusing fully on your baby during the time you spend together leads to high quality interactions. And while we know that parents and caregivers have responsibilities to attend to, we recommend designating moments throughout the day (or whenever possible) in which baby receives your undivided attention.
- Pretend it’s a real conversation! If you’re unsure of how to strike up a conversation with someone who can’t talk back (yet!), a great way to start is by narrating your actions as you do them. Even the most simple actions can serve as learning experiences for your baby. You might say, “Now I am going to open the refrigerator door. Look at the milk inside the refrigerator! We keep milk inside the refrigerator so it stays nice and fresh! Would you like some milk?” Or, if you notice baby looking intently at a colorful mobile, you might say “I’m looking at the mobile, too! Look at all the pretty colors! What colors do we see?” Giving baby lots of language input helps them to understand the conventions of conversation, such as when to respond to a question signaled by inflection and rising intonation. They might not yet be able to answer in words, but these serves and returns foster opportunities for them to continue interacting with you.
- Use your home language. If you haven’t already heard us wax poetic on the benefits of multilingualism for your babe, we’ll tell you again: babies are born ready to soak up different languages! Exposing your baby to multiple languages from birth is another way to develop and reinforce those crucial neural pathways, and the smallTalk app can help you practice Serve and Return with quality activities and ideas for interacting with your baby in multiple languages.
- Don’t overthink it! When in doubt, keep it simple. What may seem mundane to you is totally new to your baby, and the most important aspect of Serve and Return is the connection between you and your child. When your baby senses that you are wholly focused on them, they are able to explore the world around them in a safe and secure setting– the optimal conditions for quality learning experiences. With practice, Serve and Return becomes easier and more natural over time.
- Limit distractions. Opportunities allowing your baby to interact with you help them to learn and grow, and create positive change in their brain structure. For this reason, the best thing you can do is to be present for your little one. Whenever possible, limit unnecessary distractions (scrolling on social media while interacting with baby will likely produce lower-quality Serve and Return interactions) and enjoy these special moments knowing that you are helping your baby reach their full potential.
Serve and Return – The Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University