Babies arrive to the world in a state of complete dependency on their loving caregivers. During their first years of life, their brain is just as dependent as the rest of their body on the surrounding adult’s responsiveness. Harvard expert Jack Shonkoff PhD calls these critical moments where a child does something and the adult responds back (and vice versa) “serve and return interactions”. According to him, serve and return means you and your child are attuned to each other, engaging together in exploring the outside or the inside world.
As Dr. Shonkoff assesses, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. The interaction of your baby’s genes, your caring and the attentive interaction with him or her will build your child’s brain architecture, one interaction at a time.
So, you might be wondering, how does serve and return interactions look like? Well, during infancy your baby will serve you mostly simple interactions through gaze, cooing or facial expressions. These serves and returns will get more complex as your child’s brain matures and develops. Research and experience show that this soon becomes second nature as you practice together and get to know each other!
According to Harvard University Center for the Developing Child, these are 5 steps you can follow to practice serve and return with your little one:
- Notice the serve and share your child’s focus of attention. You can try and look for small opportunities during the day where your little one is pointing at something or making a face or sounds.
- Return the save by supporting and encouraging. Recognizing and acknowledging your child’s interest will reward his or her curiosity and make him or her feel heard and understood.
- Give a name to what your child is seeing, doing or feeling. This will make important language connections in his or her brain and it will also provide words to express and use his or her inner world.
- Take turns and wait so your child has a chance to respond to what you said or pointed to. Try to keep the interaction going back and forth, modeling self-control and cooperation.
- Practice endings and beginnings by signaling to your child when you are done focusing on something and ready to move on to a new activity.
If you are interested in learning more, you can check out the following links:
- Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University’s resources on Serve and Return: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/serve-and-return/
- Handout on the 5 Steps for Serve and Return Interactions: https://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/HCDC_FIND_ServeReturn_for_Parents_Caregivers.pdf