A to Z’s of Early Childhood

The science of child development and learning

N is for Newborns

Engaging in Brain-Building Interactions

A newborn’s or infant’s brain develops faster than at any other time in a child’s life.  Research shows that during this early period, back-and-forth interactions with caregivers, also known as “serve and return” interactions1, strengthen neural connections in the brain. These connections are important for early learning and they establish pathways for future learning2.  Relationships with nurturing and responsive caregivers are foundational for early learning and beyond2.

A father looking at his newborn.

Five Strategies for Back-and-Forth Interactions

Practice these five strategies to participate in back-and-forth interactions with infants every day.

Strategy 1

Look for an infant’s “serve” in everyday routines and activities.

Behaviors that involve things an infant does or looks at are “serves” and allow caregivers opportunities to respond. Noticing what an infant does (e.g., kicking legs) or looks toward (e.g., a mobile) will help you recognize when a serve happens.

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Strategy 1

Examples:

  • During play time on the floor, pay attention to what the infant looks at. For example, she may look at a colorful toy nearby.
  • While changing an infant’s diaper, notice what he does.

Strategy 2

Respond to the “serve”.

There are many ways to respond to an infant’s serve, such as looking in the same direction, touching, or talking. When you respond to an infant’s serve, you are acknowledging the serve and “returning” it, which helps an infant learn early communication and interaction skills. Caregivers may also make a serve and wait for the infant to respond.

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Strategy 2

Examples:

  • If an infant looks toward a nearby toy (e.g., a rattle), bring it closer to her and shake the rattle so she can hear the sound.
  • If an infant coos or makes a gurgling sound, look at him and smile. You might “serve” back by imitating the sound the infant makes and see if he “returns” with another sound.

Strategy 3

Name what the infant sees, does, or needs.

One way children learn words is by listening to others talk. When you use words to describe what an infant sees, does, or needs, you build connections in the brain that support early communication and interaction skills long before an infant begins to talk.

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Strategy 3

Examples:

  • If an infant turns her head toward the sound of a rattle, say, “Rattle.”
  • If an infant says, “ma,” say, “Yes, I am ma-ma.”

Strategy 4

Wait for the infant to respond.

Waiting 2-3 seconds after you return a serve gives the infant an opportunity to continue the interaction by taking another turn.

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Strategy 4

Examples:

  • After naming a rattle, wait to see if she looks at something else. If she does, name the new object.
  • After an infant coos and you repeat the sound, wait to see if he makes another sound. If he does, respond by repeating the sound again.

Strategy 5

Follow the infant’s lead.

Infants give cues to signal when they want to begin, continue, or end an interaction or exchange. Noticing and responding to these cues help build more serve-and-return interactions.

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Strategy 5

Examples:

  • If an infant looks away after you name a few objects, it is okay to end the interaction and do back-and-forth play again later.
  • If an infant stops making sounds and reaches for an object, bring the object closer and name it.

What We Are Doing

The Anita Zucker Center and our collaborators are helping families and practitioners learn how to engage in back-and-forth interactions during everyday routines using the 3R’s of Early Learning: Relationships, Repetition, Routines.

Learn More:

Center Members Collaborate with FSU and the Early Steps State Office on Professional Development for Providers
Read about how a statewide initiative to support early intervention providers to build caregivers’ capacity to support their children’s social-emotional development, including taking part in back and forth interactions with infants and toddlers during everyday routines and activities.

NewboRN Home Visit Program
The Alachua County NewboRN Home Visit Program is available to all mothers of newborns in Alachua County. If the mother volunteers to be part of the program, a nurse visits the home to check on mother and baby and to provide a wide variety of supports, resources, and information, including how to do back and forth interactions.

Other Resources

5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return 
This resource, by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, details five steps for serve-and-return interactions with an overview video and downloadable PDFs in English and Spanish.

InBrief: The Science of Early Childhood Development 
This brief from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child is part of a series that summarizes the Center’s essential scientific findings on human brain development.

Baby Games Calendar
Enter the baby’s date of birth on this website to find age-appropriate activities, milestones, and games or get them by email.

“My 1st Year” and “Discovering Feelings” Books
Download these PDF booklets to help better understand a baby’s development, recognize important milestones, and record experiences. 

Learning, Play, and Your Newborn 
This Nemours Foundation resource describes what newborns are learning and how caregivers can support them. Also available in Spanish. 

How to Play with Babies 
This article from Zero to Three offers fun ways to interact with newborns and describes common signals that indicate when they want to stop the interaction.  

Nurse-Family Partnership
This national non-profit provides free support to first-time moms with regular nurse visits from pregnancy through the child’s second birthday to keep mom and baby healthy and safe.

References

1 Center on the Developing Child. (2007). The science of early childhood development (InBrief). https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/inbrief-science-of-ecd/

2 Center on the Developing Child. (2020). Serve and return. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/serve-and-return/

Dedicated to supporting the well-being of young children and their families, the Anita Zucker Center has engaged with its partners to launch an ambitious initiative designed to provide accessible and practical information about child development and learning to support parents, caregivers, professionals and policymakers.

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