Why is “serve and return” important?

Although this may not feel like a typical conversation, interactions like these are a critical part of your baby’s cognitive growth. Multiple research studies support that back-and-forth interactions with your baby are as critical for your baby’s language development as talking to them.

Serve and Return Interaction Examples

Everyday routines are full of ways to serve and return! Here are seven tips on how you can practice serve and return interactions with your baby.

  1. Narrate What’s Happening

Talking to someone who can’t talk back can feel strange at first; try simply describing what your baby sees. Explain what you’re doing, where you’re going, and any sensations your baby is experiencing. For example, you can take them on a house tour and turn the lights off and on for them. Talk to them about it: “Now the lights are on—click! — Now the lights are off.”

  1. Share the Focus

When you see that your child is curious or interested in something, it means that they are “serving.” Respond or “return” by bringing the item closer to them, talking about the item, or joining in their excitement.

  1. Support and Encourage

If you notice your child showing interest in something, return the interest. Use words like “thank you,” “wow” or “I like that, too,” or show excitement on your face. Your attention helps your child know that they are being heard and understood.

  1. Name it

If your child shows interest in a person, item, feeling, or action, name it. Naming things builds your child’s ability to use words and to understand the world around them. If your child points to an apple, you might say, “That apple sure looks yummy!”

  1. Take Turns

Show your child how to take turns back and forth in both playing and talking. If your child rolls a ball to you, pause. Then roll it back. If you ask your child a question, pause and wait for the answer. When they serve again, return again. Taking turns teaches your child self-control and how to get along with others.

  1. Practice Endings and Beginnings

When you notice that your child is finished with one toy or activity and moves to another, follow their lead. Allowing your child to end and start activities supports them in exploring their world.

Babies and children are naturally curious and eager to learn about the world around them. Watch closely and you will start to notice the different ways your baby tries to attract your attention through “serving”. Return their serve and you will help their brains grow and develop while enjoying fun, playful moments together.

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