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"Serve and Return" Interactions for Baby Development

Mother and baby laying down looking in to each others' eyes

In a heart-melting video that has taken the internet by storm, a baby's interaction with her father is capturing the world's attention. Beyond its undeniable cuteness, this video carries a profound lesson about early childhood development, as explained by a renowned expert in early years education.

The endearing video was shared by Dan Wuori, a senior director of early learning at The Hunt Institute, on X, formerly known as Twitter. The clip showcases a father cradling his infant daughter while mimicking her expressions and cooing sounds. This seemingly simple interaction, according to Wuori, plays a crucial role in "lighting up" a baby's brain. He refers to this phenomenon as "serve and return" – a term that might remind you of a tennis match.

Wuori elaborates on this concept, describing it as a dynamic exchange where adults and children engage in back-and-forth interactions, sharing conversational turns and expressive cues. In the video, for instance, the baby's "serve" is sticking her tongue out, and the father "returns" by replicating the expression while adding his own cues and vocalisations.

The significance of this interaction lies in the reinforcement of neural connections that are instrumental in fostering a baby's communication and social skills. Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child corroborates this idea, stating that "serve and return" interactions shape the foundation of brain architecture, contribute to relationship building, and their absence poses a serious threat to a child's development and well-being.

Wuori's message to parents is clear: prioritise face-to-face interaction with your baby and child, minimising screen time and distractions. It doesn't imply constant surveillance, but rather deliberate moments of genuine connection throughout the day.

Here are some examples of "serve and return" interactions you can engage in with your baby:

  • Smile when your baby smiles at you.

  • Imitate their sounds when they make them.

  • Explain what they're looking at when they show interest.

For toddlers and young children, Harvard experts suggest the following to nurture "serve and return" relationships:

  • Pay attention to what your child focuses on or points to.

  • Comfort them with gestures and words.

  • Help them with tasks and play alongside them.

  • Name objects and actions to enhance their language skills.

  • Take turns during playtime to teach them self-control and cooperation.

Dan Wuori's Tweet: "Want to light up your baby’s brain? Think 'serve and return.' 🎾" Much like a tennis match, serve and return entails back and forth interaction during which adult and child trade conversational (and other expressive) turns. This father/daughter duo provides a fantastic example. Only 8 weeks old, the baby “serves” by reaching out for her father’s attention - making eye contact, sticking out her tongue, and cooing. Her adoring and attentive dad, meanwhile, “returns” - mimicking and extending her cues and vocalizations. As the two participate in this mutual exchange, neural connections are strengthened that support the development of the baby’s communication and social skills. More than just your physical presence, your baby needs your undivided attention - so be mindful of screen time and other distractions and engage your little one face-to-face. The dividends will be huge.

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