Serve and Return Parenting

Serve and return is a term coined by Harvard researchers for the back and forth interactions between a parent and a child. To understand the concept of serve and return, imagine a game of ping pong or tennis. Someone hits the ball, sending it over or serving it to the second player. The second player hits the ball in turn, returning it to the first player. Now substitute a conversation, a smile, or a gesture for the ball, and you’ve got an idea of serve and return.

As parents, we know that when a newborn looks deep into our eyes, he is asking us for some kind of attention. Depending upon the look in his eyes, it could be the baby just wants a smile. Or maybe he wants us to talk to him or play with him. We may not even know exactly what he wants, but we know he wants something. Most of us, as parents, will try hard to figure it out and give him what he wants, even if it takes some trial and error.

That look the baby gives the parent is a “serve.” To respond to it is the “return.”

Serve and Return Builds Brain Architecture

Serve and return interactions like this one have been studied by researchers. Studies show such parent child interactions are critical to brain architecture, or the shaping of the infant’s developing brain. Serve and return parenting is so important that a baby who does not experience this sort of back and forth with caregivers is likely to have stunted development.  According to Harvard:

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.

Erika Christakis, writing in The Atlantic, speaks about the high-pitched, grammar-simplified, over-enthusiastic baby talk a parent might use in response to a baby’s cooing. This sort of “conversational duet” is a type of serve and return parenting. According to Christakis, one study found that “Infants exposed to this interactive, emotionally responsive speech style at 11 months and 14 months knew twice as many words at age 2 as ones who weren’t exposed to it.”

In other words, if a child lacks serve and return parenting, the child may end up with developmental delays and worse. This would be a tragic outcome. The kind of outcome that happens to kids who are abandoned and end up in the foster care system. Not the kind of outcome we’d expect for our own children.

The only problem with this idea—that it can’t happen to our kids, we’re not those kinds of parents—is that increasingly, that’s not true. The thing that makes this a lie is our smartphones and screens. Our devices have turned us into distracted parents. The kind of parents who all too often miss a baby’s glance in favor of a Facebook PM or Whatsapp message.

Serve and return interaction between mother and baby girl
If your phone were to ping, what would happen to this moment?

Imagine your baby offers you that serve and return glance but at the same time, you hear a “ping” from your phone. How likely is that to happen? And how will that ping affect your serve and return interaction with your baby?

Let’s say you choose to ignore the ping and wait until the serve and return with your infant is complete before checking your phone. As you interact with your baby, the ping of your phone is still on your mind. It’s there in your head in reserve, reminding you it’s waiting for you to pay attention to it instead of to your baby. That’s got to affect the quality of your serve and return interaction with baby.

But what if you attend to the ping first, so you can then give your full attention to the baby? What happens to the serve and return interaction as a result of this delay? Is baby affected by being made to wait a bit longer?

The simple answer is that timing is everything. There’s a rhythm to serve and return interactions. As in tennis or ping pong, miss the moment, miss the serve, and the game could be lost. The baby’s glance or coo, unreturned, may mean baby gives up, acknowledges that a parent’s return just isn’t happening. The baby may look away, or space out, a kind of retreat from the perceived rejection of the parent.

Serve and Return Requires Full Attention

A father and baby serve and return interaction
This father is fully “present” for this serve and return interaction with his child.

There’s another possibility. You multitask! You ignore neither ping nor baby’s serve, dividing your attention between the two. No one gets your full attention. No one wins. Psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek comments that, “Toddlers cannot learn when we break the flow of conversations by picking up our cellphones or looking at the text that whizzes by our screens.”

Baby feels the difference, feels you are distracted, as you switch back and forth between the screen of your smartphone and your baby. Perhaps baby doubles down, tries harder, becoming even more attractive to you by doing something extra cute. Or perhaps the serve and return remains a lackluster failure so that it just sort of peters out. FAIL.

What about children beyond babyhood? Do they still require your full attention? Christakis mentions two studies that illustrate what happens when parents are too distracted by technology to engage in serve and return parenting with their children. In one of these studies, 225 moms and their 6-year-olds were videotaped as the kids were given new foods to try. A quarter of the moms used their phones, which resulted in fewer interactions with their children.

Phone Use and Learning

A second study tested the impact of a parent’s phone use on a child’s ability to learn new words. Moms were told they had to teach their 2-year-olds two new words: blicking, which was supposed to mean “bouncing,” and frepping, which was supposed to mean “shaking.” The researchers rang some of the moms from another room.

When the learning sessions were interrupted by a researcher’s phone call, the children didn’t learn the two new words. When left undisturbed, however, the new words took root. As it turns out, seven mothers were excluded from the analysis of the data, because they didn’t answer the researchers’ phone calls. In other words, they failed to follow the protocol! Christakis says, “Good for them!”


More Time for Children

It’s interesting to note that parents have never been so free to spend so much time with their children. Technology has made chores like cleaning clothes and keeping food fresh so much easier. We can walk into a supermarket to buy food, and clothing is ready-made. No one needs to milk a cow or churn butter. There are no longer accidents of the sort that were commonplace when moms were too busy to give baby much attention.

Those moms had no choice but to leave their babies alone much of the time. But our smartphones make us distracted moms by choice, limiting serve and return interactions with our children, and affecting their brain development. And make no mistake, it is a choice. Because it would be the easiest thing in the world to turn our phones off.

Minimizing Phone Distractions

With this in mind, parents would be well advised to do exactly that: shut off those phones when spending time with children. It’s the only way to be there for those serve and return moments. Here are 3 tips on how to minimize phone distractions:

  1. Put your phone on silent and out of sight in your bag or pocket when spending time with your child
  2. Experiment with shutting your phone off for a fixed time, say two hours in the afternoon, and try to be really present with your child during this time
  3. Stay off your phone while nursing or bottle-feeding your baby and during mealtimes for older children since this is an important time for socialization

That doesn’t mean you have to turn your phone off for your child’s entire waking hours. Nor must parents martyr out and feel deprived. It’s okay to check your voice mail and notifications from time to time. And it’s certainly okay to take time for yourself. It makes you a better parent.

Christakis says it best: “Parents should give themselves permission to back off from the suffocating pressure to be all things to all people. Put your kid in a playpen, already! Ditch that soccer-game appearance if you feel like it. Your kid will be fine. But when you are with your child, put down your damned phone.”

Because the stuff on your phone? It’s just virtual smoke and mirrors. While in the real world, nothing could be more important than those serve and return moments with your child.

FOMO Is Messing With Our Children’s Sleep

FOMO, or fear of missing out, is the reason you rarely see a child without a phone in hand during daylight hours. Most of us feel a bit sad about that. We’d rather our children communicate with their friends in the flesh. What’s even worse, however, is that FOMO extends deep into the night. Tiptoe into a child’s bedroom at night, and you’ll likely still see that blinking, chirping phone in your child’s hand, or on a pillow next to his head.

Is that any way for a child to get a good night’s sleep?

According to a study just published by JAMA Pediatrics on October 31, the answer is an unequivocal no.

When kids keep portable mobile screen-based devices like smartphones and tablets in their bedrooms, the result is fewer hours of sleep, poor sleep quality, and daytime sleepiness. This is a serious problem because sleep is vital to our children’s health and development, both physical and mental. Not getting enough quality sleep time has been linked to obesity, lowered immunity to diseases, stunted growth, substance abuse, and mental health issues like suicidal tendencies and depression. Considering the health risks associated with having an electronic device in the bedroom , you might even say that FOMO is killing our children.

Screens and Sleep

Earlier studies have already found that using screens close to bedtime keeps children from getting sleepy. In part, this is because the bright light from the screen keeps the body from producing melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. This new study is different because it focuses specifically on portable electronic devices that can be brought into the bedroom and their effects.  To that end, Ben Carter, PhD, MSc, Department of Biostatistics and Health Informatics, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, looked at 467 studies to find 20 studies that had the metadata he needed.

The 20 studies cover some 26,000 child participants and the effects of having mobile electronic devices  in their sleep environments (their bedrooms). The kids in these studies are from North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, and are 6-19 years old. Carter found that kids who had their mobile devices nearby at bedtime were twice as likely to get fewer than nine hours of sleep per night. Just keeping these devices in their bedrooms meant the kids were 50 percent more likely to sleep poorly, and 200 percent more likely to drag along and be groggy with sleep the next day.

Why did Carter focus on smartphones and tablets in the bedroom? What makes these devices deserve a category of their own, when we talk about screen use and sleep? A commentary accompanying the study in JAMA, if one will excuse the pun, sheds some light on the subject.

FOMO Is Making Them Sick

Written by sleep medicine expert Charles A. Czeisler and pediatrician Theresa L. Shanahan, both of Harvard, the authors note that parents say two-thirds of their teens leave their devices on even as they sleep at night. Worse yet, 43 percent of these kids awaken periodically during sleep to read and send text messages throughout the night. We know what makes them do it: FOMO. And we know it’s making them sick.

Czeisler and Shanahan write:

The use of mobile media devices at bedtime provides socially and physiologically stimulating material at a time when the transition to sleep requires the brain to wind down. Interesting content is often difficult to resist, and children frequently have a fear of missing out if they disconnect. Coupled with the demands of homework, media devices can keep children and adolescents awake well past the bedtime needed to obtain an adequate amount of sleep.

Czeisler and Shanahan explain that delaying the start of sleep can set off a whole slew of physical effects that push off sleep starting times even further, which then limits the amount of sleep hours not just for that evening but for many nights to follow. The situation is made worse during the school year. That’s when kids must wake up early to get to school on time; go to weekend sports events that continue late into the night; and attend extracurricular activities that force kids up even earlier to get some practice in before school start times.

Delayed bedtimes plus the light from mobile devices and more efficient LED light sources that have all but replaced incandescent bulbs combine to suppress the release of melatonin. Kids need that melatonin to tell their brains it’s time to sleep. But without melatonin, kids’ bodies think that the sun hasn’t gone down and that it’s not yet time to sleep. Kids’ bodies could, for thousands of years, depend on the sun to tell them when to sleep. Modern technology, however, won’t turn off the lights, so our teens don’t know that dusk has arrived.

Even when kids do finally fall asleep, having those phones next to them means they won’t be sleeping soundly.  That’s because they’re receiving and answering text messages throughout the night. It’s a case of constantly interrupted, disturbed sleep. Czeisler and Shanahan list the adverse effects of this sort of sleep: sleep deprivation; sleep-wake cycle disruption; enhanced appetite; obesity; reduced insulin sensitivity; increased risk for type 2 diabetes; ADHD; mood changes; poor academic performance; impaired immunity; slowed reaction times; memory issues; anxiety; depression; and finally, impairment of the natural course of hormonal development in teens, some of which takes place during sleep.

Texting in Bed

Phones and FOMO

That’s a lot of stuff to look at. Stuff that hurts our kids. All because of phones and FOMO.

FOMO, or the fear of missing out, means our children are exploring the parameters of the online world deep into the night. They do it because they can. They do it because their parents aren’t around to watch over their shoulders and oversee their online activities. And because they’re surfing the net and chilling with their friends deep into the night, during the day they are plain, full-out, exhausted.

Because they are sleepy during the day, they aren’t doing well in school and may even sleep the weekend away when there is no school . The effects of not enough sleep, and poor sleep at that, is having a dire effect on our children’s learning and memory and their physiological and psychosocial development. They’re showing symptoms that resemble ADHD.

Daytime Sleepiness
Texting at night means daytime sleepiness.

Czeisler and Shanahan say that all this, “raises serious ethical concerns about advertising campaigns targeting school-age children that tout the use of mobile media devices in the bedroom at the expense of sleep.”

But if we’re going to point a finger at advertisers, one has to wonder about the ethics of us as parents allowing our children to bring these devices into their bedrooms. Can we stop them? Is it too cruel to take away their devices? And if we take away their phones and tablets would we be putting them at risk, instead, for extreme anxiety, due to their intense fear of missing out, their FOMO?

As parents, we need to find a way to sever the invisible chords that bind our children to their phones and to their virtual worlds. At least at night. It’s our best and brightest chance of keeping them safe, sane, and happy in this world now, today.

Babies Are Fascinated By Photos

babies are fascinated by photos
Babies are fascinated by phones and photos on phones (photo credit: SparkCBC for flickr)


Babies are fascinated by photos. Lucky for them we all have smartphones so we’re camera-ready at every moment. We snap so many baby photos we hardly think about what we’re doing. That one didn’t come out so great? Click delete and take another.

Smart parents take advantage of the mesmerizing effects of photos to keep babies happy and occupied and to teach concepts and skills to babies. Sitting in the waiting room at the pediatrician’s office with a bored and fussy baby? Show the baby the photos in the gallery on your phone. It’s an activity that never grows stale.

Besides their seductive pull for small-fry attention, photos can be a great starting point for a conversation with your baby. You can point to a photo, say “Baby,” and then say, “What is this?” to see if you can elicit a response: “Bah!”

“That’s right!” you might say, and repeat, “Baaaaaaay-by.”

Photos Teach Early Literacy Skills

That’s a lesson in early literacy skills. Your baby is watching your lips and trying to repeat the sounds you make. At the same time, your baby attempts to connect the shape of your lips, the sound you make, and the sound she tries to repeat, with the image depicted in the photo. Yup. You guessed right: it’s just like reading. That’s why experts call these various facets connected to this learning process “pre-literacy skills.”

fascinated by photos
Babies love phones (photo credit: janetmck for flickr)

You can extend these pre-literacy skills lessons by using photos to talk about activities or even emotions. “What is the baby playing with?”


“That’s right! Ball. Can you say ‘ball?’

“Is this baby happy or sad?”

Depending on the age of your baby, you may have to supply the answer. You might say:

“Baby crying. C-c-CRY-ing,” enunciating the hard “c” sound of the word “crying.”

If your baby tries to make the hard “c” sound, she’s learning! Be patient. It may take more repetition and more sessions, but understanding and ability will come with time and practice.

Emotion Book From Photos

When my eldest was a baby, I used photographs to make an emotion book. On each page, there was a photo of my little girl experiencing a different emotion. We’d name the emotions.

If my daughter was angry, I’d tell her to go get her emotion book and find the photo that showed how she was feeling. She’d show me and I’d say, “You’re angry.”

She’d repeat the word and feel comforted that I understood what she was feeling at that moment.

This is important because children don’t always have a way to describe what they are feeling and this can cause them a great deal of frustration. They count on us as their parents, to correctly interpret the sounds they make and how they are feeling about things. We may not understand them all the time, but parents become fairly adept at interpreting the utterances of their own children.

Resourceful parenting is all about using common everyday experiences to teach important lessons. Kids are fascinated with smartphones and photos. Exploit that fascination to help build your baby’s knowledge base about the things in her world, to increase her language skills, and to better understand the human experience.