Practicing “Serve and Return” Can Boost Your Baby’s Development

A mom entertaining her baby with bubbles.
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When your child is young, it’s exciting to anticipate their first words. But the building blocks of language actually begin long before that first sweet “mama” or “dada.”

A process called “serve and return” describes the interaction that occurs when you respond to vocalizations or gestures your child says (or "serves"). When you respond (or "return") a vocalization, it helps build a foundation for expressive language and conversational skills.

“Similar to the ball being hit back and forth in a game of tennis, once your child ‘serves’ a vocalization and you ‘return’ the vocalization, a back and forth conversation can result,” explains Elizabeth Granger M.S. CCC-SLP. “This is the earliest form of turn-taking for language and is one of the most essential experiences in shaping the architecture of the developing brain for a baby, especially in the earliest years.”

Seek Out Your Baby’s “Serves”

When an adult responds appropriately to a young child who’s serving up an interaction with eye contact, words or even a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills.

A sturdy foundation built by appropriate input from a child’s caregivers creates a sense of stability for important mental and emotional development as well as relationships.

“The persistent absence of serve and return interactions can lead to unhealthy development,” advises Elizabeth Granger M.S. CCC-SLP. “The brain doesn’t receive the positive stimulation it needs, so the body’s stress response is activated flooding the developing brain with potentially harmful stress hormones.”

Respond to “Return”

Even before babies can talk, they’re developing important connections in the brain for listening, language and social development. Interacting with them as if they can speak and understand is a great way to support those developments.

“For an infant or toddler who is not yet using real words, practice responding to their babble, facial expressions or gestures by commenting on what they are showing interest in,” says Granger. “For example, if a child is holding a ball and starts to say, ‘ah ah,’ you can respond with, ‘I see you have the ball! It's a red ball. Should we throw the ball?’ Provide a little pause once you’ve spoken to allow your child time to respond to your vocalization. When they respond, continue to talk to encourage the back and forth interaction.”

“Every time your child vocalizes is an opportunity for you to return that vocalization to help build foundational language skills — and create a bonding moment with your child,” adds Granger.

How to Practice Serve and Return

In order to strengthen serve and return interactions, try to encourage vocalizations while:

  • Bouncing a ball back and forth
  • Playing with bubbles
  • Reading a book
  • Shaking a rattle or musical toy
  • Singing a nursery rhyme

Always use a caring, loving tone as you respond to your child and remember that your enthusiasm will help keep them engaged. Encourage their words and gestures by reciprocating. When you enjoy interacting with your little one, they’ll enjoy it, too.

We’re here for your family through every age and stage of development. Learn more about our pediatric rehab services here.

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