Serve And Return

Serve and return is a foundation of a good tennis match, but what does it have to do with communicating with your child? More than you might think! Learn why this communication technique is crucial in early brain development among babies.

Serve and Return

Serena Williams has grown to be quite the household name for tennis, but you may not know that she’s been perfecting the art of her powerful serve and forceful return since she was four. Each tennis match, Serena walks in with the expectation that she and her opponent will serve the ball and the other will return it. Back and forth with intention and focus: Serve. Return. Serve. Return. The volley continues as each player waits to respond to what the other player sends their way.

What does this have to do with Listening and Spoken Language (LSL)? More than you might think! Sometimes we think of learning to talk as something that comes “later” when a baby starts uttering their first words; however, babies are born with a brain ready to learn spoken language, recognize speech, and understand and use words to talk.

Recent research from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University says anytime an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills. These back and forth interactions of communication are known as Serve and Return and they can begin the first minutes after a child is born.

If there is a baby in your world, your early experiences and intentional interactions matter quite a bit! Let’s dive deeper into the meaning and importance behind Serve and Return.

What does it mean to Serve and Return?

Think of a “serve” as any time your baby attempts to communicate with you.

This could be a smile, a look, a movement such as kicking their legs or a sound your baby does to gain your attention or solicit your interaction. These bids for attention are examples of a baby serving something your way in hopes of a response.

A “return” can be any simple response to your baby’s communication attempt.

You can acknowledge a child’s effort to communicate and reciprocate with a smile or a laugh, but a comment is even better! (“Well aren’t you smiley this morning?”) The communication is now starting to move back and forth between you. This can work the other way as well. A parent might serve and a child would return.

While these sweet interactions are a joy unto themselves, they’re doing much more than building relationships. Every time you Serve and Return with a child, you’re deepening connections in that child’s brain.

How do these brain connections happen?

The everyday interactions a child has in the first three years of life shape the architecture of their brain, growing the connections needed for important life-long skills — like having conversations with friends, reading books, creating art, thinking about and solving problems, and doing well in school.

Every second, 700 new brain connections can be formed in response to a baby’s experiences in the world. The quality of a baby’s relationships has a major influence on which brain connections take place and the strength of those connections. When you have a positive interaction with your baby, like imitating the sounds they are making to encourage them to make more, you are helping to shape their brain for a lifetime of learning.

For children with hearing loss, Serve and Return is particularly important. All babies need to hear the meaningful speech and language surrounding them so their brain can form the connections it needs to later learn to listen, talk, and read.

Hearing loss can limit access to sound that little brains need to grow and make those connections. That’s why it’s urgent to follow up on a failed newborn hearing screening and get hearing devices to begin intervention as early as possible for a baby. Children with hearing loss need the opportunity to practice Serve and Return, and it’s important that the adults in the child’s life continue to engage in serve and return.

Here are a few simple tips to make sure you’re making the most of Serve and Return with your baby:


Make sure your baby can hear you.

Find out the status of your baby’s hearing. About 97 percent of babies are given a newborn hearing screening before leaving the hospital, so check on your baby’s status. If there was a recommendation for follow-up, don’t lose any time before further testing.

When babies with hearing loss are diagnosed early and fit with the right hearing devices for their hearing loss, most have the same opportunity to interact through Serve and Return activities and grow their brain for listening and talking. The earlier your child is identified, amplified, and receiving intervention services, the more opportunities your baby will have.


Seek a parent-professional partnership. As a parent, you are your child’s first and most important teacher — which can be a little daunting in the early weeks, months, and years of a child’s life. All parents live on a learning curve. Fortunately, there are LSL professionals to help you. They can not only help you with Serve and Return strategies, but teach you when to use them, and which ones are specific to the needs of your child.


Looking for specific examples of Serve and Return to get started? Hear Dr. Teresa Caraway share a few ways to facilitate Serve and Return with your child in our Did You Know video.

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Download our LSL Strategies to Support Serve and Return handout and try a few with your baby or share them with your interventionist and take turns together.