Serve and Return – Building Your Baby’s Brain

Serve and return photoBy Camille Maben, First 5 California Executive Director

From the moment a child is born, their brains are growing and developing at fantastic speeds, and your interactions with them at this stage will impact the rest of their lives.

Science has shown that healthy brain development depends upon ongoing conversations and interactions between an adult and a child. This process of “serve and return,” where an infant “serves” through gestures, cries or coos, and an adult “returns” by acknowledging and responding in a positive manner, is critical for building neural connections and language development.

A recent study of children between the ages of 4 and 6 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology cognitive scientists found that this volleying back and forth accounted for a significant difference in brain physiology and language skills regardless of economic status.

Fortunately, this activity doesn’t require fancy toys or special videos or apps, all it requires is you. Here are some easy steps to follow:

Be engaged

Stay aware to what draws your infant or toddler’s attention and their responses. It could be a toy, a pet wandering past, a cloud floating overhead, or even their toes.

Respond positively

This is the “return” portion, where you provide a response to their expressions and gestures. If an object fascinates them, you can point to it and give it a name, or just smile and make a sign that shows you recognize their interest.

Keep it going

Just like in tennis, you want to rally and have an ongoing back and forth dialogue – even if they’re not using words. Make sure to pause and give them time to respond so they have time to think and formulate their ideas.

Make this an important part of your daily interactions. By doing so, you will help your baby’s brain develop and prepare them emotionally and cognitively for the future.

More tips and information are available at

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