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How to boost your baby's brain
1. Why are the early years of a child's life so critical for brain development?
The early years are important because the experiences young children have and the relationships they have with the important people in their lives literally shape the development of their brain.
And that early foundation affects all the learning and behavior and physical and mental health that follows through a lifetime. It’s impossible to overestimate how important the early years are.
2. What is the most important thing a parent can do to support brain development?
The most important thing that any parent can do to support the development, and particularly the brain development of a young child, is to get to know that young child, get to be able to read that child’s cues, get to be able to engage in what we call “serve and return” interaction.
3. What is 'serve and return' and what does it look like?
Serve and return is just like play. The reason why ‘serve and return’ accurately describes what’s important about the interaction is that it goes in both directions. A baby serves a smile, a coo, a babble, a gesture, and the parent or other adult caring for that child returns a response that is connecting to what the baby did. Baby makes a sound; you make the same sound back. A baby points to something; you look at that and point at yourself. That’s the key. It goes both ways. The baby can start it. The parent can start it. The key is how you respond.
Serve and return is not necessarily something that works the first time you try it. Bu the more you practice it actually gets easier.
4. How is 'serve and return' related to play between parent and child?
For very young children, all important learning takes place within the context of play. Play is exploration. Play is trying things. Play is trying to kind of figure out when you do one thing, something else happens. Play is trying to develop a sense of mastery of the world. A lot of that is done by providing an environment that is safe and provides opportunities for learning.
A lot of play, a lot of the interaction between parents and young children, is in the ‘serve and return’ category. Some play is solitary by the child himself or herself.
5. How would you advise a parent on how to do 'serve and return' in a playful way?
I would start by making the idea of ‘serve and return’ to be something that is easy, friendly and relaxing. Play can occur when you are feeding a child, when you are changing the child’s clothes, when you are bathing a child. All of those are opportunities for playful interaction and learning between adults and children.
To help parents understand that when you smile back and then not just stop there but then start playing, you’re actually building brain circuits.
6. What are some games parents can play with their child to help boost their brains?
In infancy with very young babies, it’s all about interaction, kind of visual, sound, looking your baby in the eye, making that personal connection, being sensitive to your baby’s feelings.
Here are some things people may not think about as games, but they’re games; they’re play. Peekaboo – putting a cloth over your head. “Where’s baby, oh here he is.” Patty-cake. “How big is baby? So big!” The best games build a sense of emotional safety that allows growth. When you cover your face with a cloth and play peekaboo, babies are learning.
Why is the baby still laughing every single time you do this?
First, it’s the personal interaction; it’s very rewarding. But second, the baby is mastering the concept of things disappearing and coming back and knowing that they still exist.
If a baby keeps wanting to do this, there’s a reason for that. And the reason for that is that the baby’s brain is saying – “I am mastering this. I am learning a lot from this. I am enjoying the learning experience.” Ask yourself: what does my baby enjoy doing? And then ask yourself, why do you think the baby enjoys doing that? And the answer always is ‘because it’s helping to build the baby’s brain.’"
Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., is the Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital; and Founding Director of the university-wide Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.