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In this blog, Speech Pathology Clinical Lead Aria May looks at serve and return interactions to promote connection and communication with your child.
Serve and return is more than just tennis lingo. It’s one way we can describe the important back-and-forth interactions babies and children have with their caregivers. Serve and return supports bonding and has long lasting developmental benefits.
Instead of a ball going back and forth on the court, simply think about interactions going back and forth between a child and caregiver.
What exactly is a serve when it comes to communication?
A serve is anything your child does that starts an interaction. This may be a look towards you, a sound, a word, a comment or question, or an action.
Moving arms in excitement. That’s a serve!
Opening their mouth and reaching for a spoonful of food. That’s a serve!
Looking at you and smiling. That’s a serve!
Moving towards you and touching your hand. That’s a serve!
Making a frown. That’s a serve!
Using a sound like ‘oooeeeeee’ or ‘bababa’ or even a word. That’s a serve!
Making a comment about an aeroplane. That’s a serve!
These are just a few of the ways babies and children may ‘serve’.
How to return the serve (no sports skills required!)
Your child feels important and validated when their serve is returned, and it encourages them to serve again.
The most important thing is to look out for your child’s focus of attention which helps to notice the serve. Then respond in any way that feels comfortable.
This might look like — responding with interest by talking about what your baby/child notices, smiling back, continuing a game or having a laugh together.
Even if your baby or child isn’t yet using words, you can return the serve by naming what they are seeing, thinking, feeling or experiencing. Naming their focus sets them up for learning language and helps create foundation connections in the brain.
Words don’t have to be used all the time. A lot of serve and return is non-verbal. It may be you seeing your little one smile at you in the back seat of the car and smiling back, or playing peekaboo.
Keep it going...
After you return the serve, your child has another chance to have a turn. As adults we might be ready to take another turn very quickly, but babies and children need time to process the world around them and go at a slower pace.
Waiting after you have returned the serve, gives your child the opportunity to take their turn again. It also gives us another moment to notice your child’s interests and focus. Sometimes serve and returns will be short, and sometimes they will go on for many turns – like a tennis rally.
When we respond to interactions in this way, we are sensitive and responsive. A responsive caregiver style has positive impacts on development and supports social communication for children who are experiencing typical as well as neurodivergent development.
Serve and return to build your baby’s brain
Serve and return interactions not only help babies and children with communication, but also to develop trusting and secure relationships, cope with stress, manage their feelings and learn new skills.
Brains and development are influenced by much more than genes. Our early experiences have a large role to play too – this idea of genes and the environment having an impact is called ‘nature vs nurture’. The ‘nurture’ we provide through sensitive and responsive caregiver styles, builds strong brain architecture. If we use the analogy of building, it’s important to get the foundations right, before putting up the walls, and then doing the wiring and plumbing.
Brains start developing soon after conception and continue into mid-twenties. The first few years are a busy time for the brain – making new connections to different cells in the brain to make sense of our environment through all our senses. By age three, the brain has already grown to approximately 80-90 percent of its adult size. Every second there are more that 1 million brain connections developing.
Once specific connections in the brain are formed, they are refined through experiences through a process called ‘pruning’. The circuits that are used the most become stronger, and those that aren’t used much become weaker. This allows us to create more efficient processes over time. Serve and return helps make and strengthen brain connections.
What can get in the way of serve and returns?
When a child serves and no one returns the ball time and time again, this can have impacts for the brain, communication and overall development. Fortunately, we don’t have to get it right all the time! Some research suggests being responsive for around just 50 percent of serves helps babies develop a secure base. Screens are a part of daily life but can influence our ability to notice cues or serves. These missed opportunities can add up over time. For children that have experienced early trauma, serve and return interactions can actually help to repair stress.
Sometimes it can be tricky for us to notice our child’s serves if they are more subtle or they are experiencing developmental differences. Slowing down in these moments can make it easier to spot these serves. Sometimes you may be unsure what a serve means, but a warm and empathetic response still sends the message of ‘I hear you, I am here, and I want to connect with you’.
The best thing about serve and returns is that you don’t need any extra ‘stuff ‘to do it. It’s just you and your baby or child having fun and responding to each other and can happen at any time of the day.
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Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Serve and return. Published 2016; Retrieved from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/
Lenroot RK, Giedd JN. Brain development in children and adolescents: Insights from anatomical magnetic resonance imaging. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2006;30:718–729
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2004). Young children develop in an environment of relationships. Working Paper No. 1. Retrieved from http://www.developingchild.net
Whitehouse AJO, Varcin KJ, Pillar S, et al. Effect of Preemptive Intervention on Developmental Outcomes Among Infants Showing Early Signs of Autism: A Randomized Clinical Trial of Outcomes to Diagnosis. JAMA Pediatrics. 2021; 175(11): e213298. DOI:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.3298
Woodhouse S, Scott J, Hepworth A, et al. Secure Base Provision: A New Approach to Examining Links Between Maternal Caregiving and Infant Attachment. Child Development, 2019; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13224