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Serve and Return Parenting   (This Page)

Video: Serve & Return Shapes Brain Circuitry 

Video:  Why Responsiveness Matters

Serve and Return Parenting

Sensitive and Responsive Interaction

Serve and return is when a young child begins - (Serves) - with whines, cries, babbles or gestures and an adult - (Returns) - with affectionate and responsive eye contact, words, or touch. This creates neural connections that are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills. 


A lack of consistent, loving responsiveness can result in important neural pathways from forming, or fading away from lack of stimulation. Research also shows that babies feel distress when their attempts to connect with a parent or caregiver are persistently ignored.

When caregivers are sensitive and responsive to a young child’s signals and needs, they provide an environment rich in serve and return experiences.

The early years are the most active period for establishing healthy brain development. In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. Children from birth to three years of age live directly through their senses creating critical and impactful environment for infants and toddlers.  


Children from birth to three years of age live directly through their senses creating critical and impactful environments for infants and toddlers.  

Responsive nurturing interaction shapes early infant/toddler brain development and builds connections that allow the development of lifelong skills like problem-solving, communication, self-control, and relationship building creating survival skills and the ability to thrive within family and community.

The caregiver-child relationship is built in the moment-to-moment interactions that happen throughout the day. It is worthwhile to consider how everyday care routines offer focused opportunities for responsive and respectful interactions that build your relationship and support a child’s learning. 

"Because responsive relationships are both expected and essential, their absence is a serious threat to a child’s development and well-being. Healthy brain architecture depends on a sturdy foundation built by appropriate input from a child’s senses and stable, responsive relationships with caring adults.  

If an adult’s responses to a child are unreliable, inappropriate, or simply absent, the developing architecture of the brain may be disrupted, and subsequent physical, mental, and emotional health may be impaired.

The persistent absence of serve and return interaction acts as a “double whammy” for healthy development: not only does the brain not receive the positive stimulation it needs, but the body’s stress response is activated, flooding the developing brain with potentially harmful stress hormones." 1

Parent Infant Interaction

For infants and toddlers, all learning and critical development happens in the context of their relationships with the important adults in their lives.


1. Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. "Serve and Return"

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