Serve and return! Playing with your baby

At My First Five Years, we know that babies, toddlers and children learn through play, but what does learning through play look like for your baby? In this blog, we will explore play and young babies, thinking about how you can play with your baby and how this play supports their development. 


Getting to know your baby 

At first, it might feel like you are in a cycle of eat, sleep, cry repeat as you and your baby get to know each other, your baby adjusts to life in the outside world and you adapt to being a parent. But, if you have time to pause for a moment, you will begin to notice your baby responding to your touch, voice and gaze. They might stop moving when they hear your voice, calm when held or touched or look intently at you when you hold them. Perhaps this does not feel like play, but these responses are the starting point for your baby’s early play as your baby responds to you and notices and enjoys your responses to them.  

Serve pic 1

In the early days and weeks, you and your baby will be getting to know each other, they will know your voice and smell from the moment they are born but will learn more about you as they look at you and notice your responses. You will get to know your baby and might start to notice that your baby finds some things calming or that they respond with excitement to certain actions and as you realise this you will do these things more often. Much of your baby’s early play will be linked to building relationships and understanding conversations as well as developing their physical skills, so whilst it might feel like you are spending your time feeding, changing and comforting your playful interactions at these times are building your baby’s brain!


What is ‘serve and return’?  

You might have heard the term, ‘serve and return’ and wonder what this means, ‘serve and return’ is a term used to describe the reciprocal interactions that adults have with babies and children. In these interactions the baby or child offers a ‘serve’ this could be as simple as looking at you or at an object, making a sound, or moving their arms and legs, and then, as your baby develops, it could be making sounds or saying a word.  The adult notices this serve and returns it, so this could be by looking where the baby is looking, pointing, commenting, offering a gentle touch or a smile.  Responding to your baby’s ‘serves’ helps to build your relationship with them, shows them that their interests will be noticed and encourages curiosity. Your responses also provide the opportunity for them to hear the words to name the things that they are looking at, it might be a while before they say words but hearing the names of objects helps them to link words and the things that they see. 

Serve pic 2


Building brains 

Various studies have used neuroimaging to look at the activity in babies’ brains during interaction finding that ‘serve and return’, which is also known as ‘contingent, reciprocal interaction’, results in greater connectivity between areas of the brain and lays the foundation for understanding themselves and other people and for developing language. So, when you respond to your baby’s cry or the excited wriggling of their arms and legs you are helping them to build connections in their brain.  


Starting to play 

What does all this mean for you and your baby? Think about the things that you do for your baby every day, maybe these could be an opportunity for interaction. Smile and talk to them as you change their nappy, notice when they are offering a ‘serve’, perhaps they wriggle or make a noise as you approach, or maybe they are quiet when they hear your voice. Respond to these ‘serves’ with a return and then pause so your baby can have another turn. They will become more interested in toys and objects as they get older and some of your interactions will be focused on these things. But in the first few weeks, you might find that they are most interested in you and other people they see frequently, so hold them, talk to them, look at them and play simple games like, ‘peekaboo’ and ‘baby is so big!’ Enjoy playing with them and think about all the activity that is going on in their brain as they enjoy these interactions with you! 

Serve pic 3


Find out more 

Serve and Return Guide: How Interaction with Children Can Build Brains ( 

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004). Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships: Working Paper No. 1. Retrieved from