Serve and Return

Positive child-caregiver interactions build strong brains.


We know that healthy relationships between children and caregivers are important for building strong brains. Starting with newborns, a responsive child-caregiver bond builds a strong foundation for development through “serve-and-return” interactions. 

Serve and return works like a game of tennis or volleyball between child and caregiver. The child “serves” by reaching out for interaction—with eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, babbling, or touch. A responsive caregiver will “return the serve” by speaking back, playing peekaboo, or sharing a toy or a laugh.

These back-and-forth exchanges are the building blocks of children's early brain development. They help children learn how to control their emotions, cope with stress, and learn skills that will serve as a foundation for later development. A caregiver who is sensitive and responsive to a young child’s signals provides an environment rich in serve and return experiences.



What happens when a child serves and no one steps up to return the ball? Over time, failing to respond when a child reaches out will weaken brain architecture and impair the development of skills and abilities, behaviour, and health. 

Research shows that an effective way to prevent this kind of neglect is to provide more supports to families and communities. Learn more about overcoming neglect when you read about Toxic Stress



Most of us spend a growing portion of our day looking at screens, be they computer monitors, televisions, tablets, or smart phones. These devices are attractive to children too, offering entertainment and in some cases, a degree of interaction.

However, devices also have the potential to interfere with serve-and-return interactions. A caregiver who is interacting with a smart phone may miss a child’s cues, or serves. Over time these missed opportunities for child-adult interaction can add up and have a negative impact on brain development. Similarly, children who spend time on devices may serve less frequently, which also limits the number of child-adult interactions they experience during crucial periods of development.

Technology is here to stay so it’s important to consider media use within the broader context of daily experiences that are important for healthy brain development: children need adequate sleep, opportunities to play with caregivers and peers, time for family meals and activities, time for homework if they are in school, and most importantly, time for lots of rich serve and return interactions throughout their day. If there is time left in the day once these needs are met, screens can be used with caregiver supervision that’s appropriate for the development  age and stage of the child. Remember, all media is educational—for better or worse. It can help teach literacy skills just as easily as it can teach attitudes and beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world around us. This means that any media content a child is exposed to needs to be appropriate for both the child and for the intended use.

The Science of Serve and Return

How can it be that something as intangible as “experiences” can cause biological changes to the brain? The idea of brain architecture explains how experiences we have in childhood help strengthen or weaken the connections and circuits involved in a particular behaviour. However, serve-and-return interactions can also affect how our genes are expressed. 

Contrary to what many people believe, our fates are not set in stone by our genes. It is true that everyone has a set of genes that provides cells with a basic blueprint for development and operations, but new research from the field of epigenetics shows that our genes are designed to be sensitive to experiences during certain periods of development. Our earliest experiences can actually stimulate structural changes to the area surrounding each gene, influencing whether or not that gene is expressed.

For example, it has been known for some time that the quality of the infant-caregiver relationship has an impact on emotional regulation and sensitivity to stress in children. Positive, nurturing relationships help children learn how to control their emotions and cope with positive and tolerable stress. Toxic stress results in anxiety and a greater sensitivity to stress in children—and this heightened sensitivity endures into adulthood long after the toxic stress has occurred. More recent research has revealed the mechanism behind these phenomena: the infant-caregiver relationship alters the expression of the genes responsible for regulating emotions and stress through an epigenetic change. In this way, early experiences can be biologically embedded in our brains and bodies and produce long-lasting changes in our behaviour. 

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