Every parent wants to ensure their baby’s brain is developing to its full potential—and researchers at Harvard University’s Center on The Developing Child say a certain kind of parental play known as “serve and return” is the perfect workout for little minds. No pressure or anything, but the science indicates these serves and returns build the foundation of baby’s brain architecture. That sets the stage for their future learning potential, behavior and health.

The good news is you’re probably already doing it when you respond to baby’s gestures and noises by mirroring a silly face or asking questions.

To maximize the impact of these serve and return games, the researchers at Harvard say parents should follow these five steps:


1. Notice when your child is “serving” and share their focus

When babies point at something or make a sound or a face, they’re serving up an opportunity for parents to interact. When we return the serve, we’re not just encouraging our children to explore the world around them, but we’re also learning about their interests and abilities.

The researchers at Harvard say parents can’t do this all the time—we’re busy, they know—so they suggest taking advantage of the quiet moments: When you’re in the line at the grocery store or finishing up a diaper change and baby starts pointing, follow their focus and see what they’re trying to show you.

2. Support your baby by returning the serve

While the researchers recognize parents can’t return ever serve, they stress it’s important for parents to acknowledge them when they can. That’s because when babies don’t get any returns, it can be stressful for them. Acknowledging what your baby is interested in lets him know that we hear and understand his thoughts and feelings. In turn, this encourages and rewards curiosity, which builds brain power by establishing neural connections.

3. Name your child’s interests

Little brains are making language connections long before they can talk. If baby serves by pointing to something, give her the name for the object—such as by saying, “Yes, that’s a dog!”

The team at Harvard says parents can name anything the child is serving up, whether it is an object, a person a feeling or an action. And naming a combination of those things (“Do you see Daddy? You seem happy to see him!”) isn’t too complex for baby. Rather, it helps the child’s brain acquire language skills and make sense of the world.

4. Take turns and take your time

After returning a serve, give baby a moment to respond. This back and forth can go on for a long time, but waiting for the child to form a response is crucial, according to the Harvard research. Because our babies are learning so much at once, they need a little extra time to come up with their response.

When we wait for another serve, we’re giving baby time to develop ideas, which helps build confidence and independence. It also teaches self-control and helps baby understand how to interact with other people.

5. Let baby end the game

When baby seems like she’s done serving up this game of peek-a-boo or point-and-name, follow that lead. If they walk away or pick up a new toy or start to get cranky, follow their focus and you’ll notice when your baby is ready to be done with one activity and begin another. By noticing when children are signaling the end of an activity, parents are opening up an opportunity for new serves that explore a different part of baby’s world.

Research indicates more than 1 million new neural connections form every second in the first year of children’s lives. While genes are the basis for the circuit building, parents and caregivers are a major influence in reinforcing the connections through serve and return interactions.

We may not catch every serve, but we can make the ones we do notice matter. It may seem like a game to pass time in the checkout line, but it’s really building your child’s brain and future.

Motherhood is a practice in learning, growing and loving more than you ever thought possible. Even as a "veteran" mama of four young sons and one newly adopted teenager, Jalyssa Richardson enthusiastically adapts to whatever any given day has in store—a skill she says she's refined through the years.

Here's what just one day in her life looks like:

Jalyssa says she learned to embrace agility throughout her motherhood journey. Here's more from this incredible mama of five boys.

What is the most challenging part of your day as a mom of five?

Time management! I want to meet each of the boys' individual needs—plus show up for myself—but I often feel like someone gets overlooked.

What's the best part of being a mom of five?

The little moments of love. The hugs, the kisses, the cuddles, the smiles... they all serve as little reminders that I am blessed and I'm doing okay.

Are there misconceptions about raising boys?

There are so many misconceptions about raising boys. I think the biggest one is that boys don't have many emotions and they're just so active all the time. My boys display many emotions and they also love to be sweet and cuddly a lot of the time.

What do you think would surprise people the most about being a mom of five?

How much I enjoy it. I never knew I wanted to be a mom until I was pregnant with my first. My desire only grew and the numbers did! I am surprised with every single baby as my capacity to love and nurture grows. It's incredible.

How do you create balance and make time for yourself?

Balance for me looks like intentional planning and scheduling because I never want my boys to feel like they aren't my first priority, but it is extremely difficult. What I try to do is not fit it all into one day. I have work days because motherhood is my first priority. I fit in segments of self-care after the kids' bedtime so I don't grow weary.

What's the biggest lesson you have learned from motherhood?

I have learned that sacrifice is actually beautiful. I was terrified of the selflessness motherhood would require, but I've grown so much through the sacrifice. There is nothing better than living for something bigger than myself.

When did you first feel like a mom? How has your motherhood evolved?

I first felt like a mom when I was pregnant with my first son and I intentionally chose to change my eating habits so my body could be strong and healthy for him. I didn't have to think twice—I just did what I thought would be best for him. That decision being so effortless made me realize I was made for motherhood.

My perspective has changed with each baby as I've realized motherhood doesn't have to be one-size-fits-all. With my first son, I was a by-the-book mama and it was so stressful. With each baby, I have felt more freedom and it has made motherhood so much more beautiful. I have evolved into the mother that they need, I am perfect for these boys.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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As mamas we want our babies to be safe, and that's what makes what happened to Glee actress Naya Rivera and her 4-year-old son Josey so heartbreaking. Late Wednesday night news broke that Rivera was missing and presumed drowned after her 4-year-old son, Josey, was found floating alone on a rented boat on Lake Piru in Ventura County, California.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Ventura County Sheriff's Department Capt. Eric Buschow said the mother and her preschooler were swimming near the boat Wednesday afternoon. Josey got back into the rented boat after the swim but his mother did not. The preschooler was later found by other boaters, sleeping alone in the boat. Rescuers were able to figure out who he was because Rivera's wallet and identification were on the boat.


Our hearts are breaking for Josey and his dad right now. So much is unknown about what happened on Lake Piru but one thing is crystal clear: Naya Rivera has always loved her son with all her heart.

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