The Importance of Serve and Return: Promoting healthy attachment with your child

Great parents employ serve-and-return interaction naturally. Think of it simply as responsive, two-way communication. When your baby babbles, gestures, talks, or cries, that is a serve. When you respond appropriately with eye contact, words, a hug or other gesture, that is a return. As your child grows, serve-and-return interactions increasingly will include language.

Research shows that serve-and-return interactions help form connections in the brain, and contribute significantly toward developing communication and social skills. These interactions also promote healthy attachments and trust between your child and you and other caregivers. This trust lets your little one feel safe to explore the environment.

It’s never too early to start these interactions with your infant, and continue them as your child grows.

Patience and observation are the keys to effective serves and returns. If you ask your child a question, wait (and wait longer if necessary) for a response. Even before your child can talk, he or she will return your serve through gabbles, gestures, or facial expressions. Acknowledge them, and imagine aloud what your child might be trying to say. This models conversational turns and boosts your child’s language processing skills.

For older children, try to be reliable about returning a serve thoughtfully. One form of serve often is couched in questions such as, “Why do birds fly?” Depending on the question, there can be many interesting returns, including in this case, “Maybe because they like to fly? What do you think they might like about flying?”

Remember, when your baby babbles at you, reaches for you, or smiles at you, he or she is “serving up” a chance to engage with you. Do your best to consistently “return” attention to your child to encourage the behavior and trust. It could be a game of peekaboo, or simply naming an object your child reaches for.