Ever wonder what goes on inside the mind of your toddler? Quite a lot, in fact - much more than scientists previously thought! 80% of all brain development occurs in the first 3 years of life. Your child’s brain develops more than 1 million neural connections per second during their first 3 years - more than any other period in their lifetime, at a pace that will never again be matched. Therefore, how you interact with your child in these early years is of utmost importance.

While your child’s chubby cheeks and thighs might squish like play-dough, their brain shares similar characteristics: a child’s brain is malleable and plastic, meaning you have the auspicious opportunity to shape your child’s growing mind through a process called serve-and-return.

Serve-and-return is the term used by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University that refers to the meaningful exchange that takes place between a child and their caregiver:

When the child serves a cue, the caregiver returns that cue by responding with support and encouragement.

This back-and-forth exchange is fundamental in shaping early brain development, creating the connections needed for building emotional and cognitive skills throughout life. When a child’s cues are acknowledged and reciprocated, they know that they are understood, and their emotional needs are being met. Science shows that regular engagement in serve-and-return interactions is shown to have positive implications on all aspects of a child’s development, as this BabySparks article details. And it’s interesting to learn that the brain’s ability to change in response to experiences is at its highest, while the amount of effort required to implement such change is at its lowest, in the first 2-3 years of life, as shown in the graph below. Therefore, making the right connections early on is much more advantageous than trying to rewire the brain later.

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So, what does ‘serve-and-return’ look like?

👶 In the early days, your baby’s cues probably looked like coos and babbles, and you likely returned them with similar sounds, loving words, eye contact, and tender touch. But just like the brain, the serve-and-return interactions evolve over time.

🧸 In early toddlerhood, 12-15 months, your toddler learns a newfound sense of independence, with a sudden increase in mobility and communication. They watch and imitate, and exercise this new sense of autonomy. You can return your emerging toddler’s cues by providing them just enough support that they can achieve their goals, following their lead.

🦠 At 15-18 months, your toddler is becoming quite the scientist, and conducts experiments to test their hypotheses, repeating actions that yield favorable outcomes. A budding problem-solver, your little one is actively utilizing their body and mind together to solve problems and reach goals. Remember that your toddler can understand much more than they can express. They may experience frustration, and emotions that are much bigger than they are equipped to handle, leaving them feeling powerless. You can support your toddler by practicing and teaching empathy, and by naming feelings so that they can better understand and work through them.

🌋 At 18-24 months, your child’s vocabulary will likely erupt, and the words may flow without cease! Even when they can understand words like “no,” they still are not capable of impulse control, which means that they will do things even when told not to, so practice patience and be willing to redirect. Remember that self-control takes years to develop, and your toddler “testing limits” is actually developmentally appropriate behavior. As a natural-born scientist, your toddler may exhibit “testing” different behaviors to gauge the reactions they get from you. How you respond matters: it is best if you remain specific, consistent, and calm.

Zero to Three has a fantastic, fully loaded website filled with resources and advice about what is going on in your child’s brain during the first three years, and how you can optimize brain development and strengthen neural connections as well as emotional ones, reinforcing the bond you have with your child. Still more ways to nurture your child’s development at each stage of their toddlerhood can be found here.

Remember, life with a toddler is ever-evolving, just like their brain, and you, as a parent. You’re doing a great job!