Serve and return! Playing with your baby

Do you enjoy a chat with your baby? They might be starting to respond with a smile, sound or wriggle, and often that's enough encouragement for us to keep going. But, as well as being lots of fun and giving us some really cute videos to save and share with friends and family, these chats are amazing for your baby's development. Scientists at Harvard University call these chats, 'serve and return' interactions – read on to find out more.  

The term ‘serve and return’ is used to describe the reciprocal interactions that adults have with babies and children. 

In these interactions, the baby or child offers a ‘serve’; right now this could be as simple as looking at you or at an object, making a sound or moving their arms and legs. As your baby gets older, 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, or by pointing, commenting and offering a gentle touch or a smile. 

Responding to your baby’s ‘serves’ helps to build your relationship with them, and shows them that their interests will be noticed. This, in turn, will encourage their curiosity. 

Your responses also provide the opportunity for them to hear the names of the things they can see. It might be a while before they say words, but hearing the names of objects helps them to link words and what they see. 

Building brains 

Various studies have used neuroimaging to look at the activity in babies’ brains during interaction. They found that ‘serve and return’ interaction results in greater connectivity between areas of the brain.[1] It is suggested that it 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're helping them to build connections in their brain. 

Starting to play 

What does all this mean for you and your newborn? Think about the things that you do for your baby every day – they are all 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 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 your time with your baby and think about all the activity happening in their brain as they enjoy these interactions with you! 


Find out more: 

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

[1] Low, f. (2022) ‘Bonding: A Brilliant Brain Builder; The importance of supporting parents to bond with their child from the earliest years’. Knowledge Hub For Maternal & Child Health Evidence Briefs 2021–2022. pp.33-46 Retrieved July 2023 from: