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Babies, Babbles and Beyond: Serve and Volley with Infants

How can caregivers promote speech in infants?

Key points

  • Some babies born during the pandemic seem to produce fewer vocalizations than pre-pandemic babies.
  • Serve-and-volley interactions are an effective way to promote speech in babies.
  • Responding to a baby's vocalization contingently is critical.
Larry Crayton/Unsplash/used with permission
Source: Larry Crayton/Unsplash/used with permission

More than two years into the pandemic and many of us can agree that we have had fewer opportunities to talk with each other during this time. What kind of effect did the pandemic have on babies and their speech?

In a recent study published in JAMA, babies born nine months into the pandemic were compared with babies born before the pandemic. The pandemic babies vocalized lesser and had fewer conversational turn-taking opportunities with their parents compared to the pre-pandemic babies. This means that they produced fewer babbles, coos, and grunts over the course of a day. The authors argue that one explanation for this finding may be because caregivers are talking less to babies due to COVID-related stress. While the results may be alarming, the authors of the study argue that it is a fixable problem if we make active attempts to increase babies’ vocalizations and conversational turns.

How can caregivers promote vocalization in babies?

One way to do this is to engage in serve-and-volley interactions. Serve-and-volley interactions have been shown to shape children’s language, health and lifelong learning. Think of these as a turn-taking game that is played with a baby. We begin by watching out for things that capture the infant’s motivation, which essentially set the stage for a serve-and-volley interaction. The infant serves by picking up, reaching towards, grunting or even looking at a toy. The parent then volleys by responding to the toy that has captured the infant’s attention.

Some types of toys afford easy serve-and-volley opportunities. Take the case of an animal farm. Each time the baby picks up the cow (serve), a parent could say “moo moo” (volley). The baby may then continue engaging with the cow giving the parent more opportunities to volley. If your baby is ready, they may choose to return the volley by babbling or even saying “moo moo”. The episode is driven by the child’s motivation — it could be an animal farm, a vehicle set, or even a little leaf during a walk in the park. We aim to be sensitive and available to respond to the baby’s serves.

Why serve and volley?

Such interactions have been associated with multiple long-term positive outcomes extending from speech and language benefits to academic success in school. They also deepen learning, help children build their focus and attention, and contribute to overall brain development. So much so that serve-and-volley interactions feature on the consensus statement released by 10 of the world’s top scholars on early education. Babies make multiple serves throughout the course of a day, and we aim to be on our feet, ready and responsive to these serves so that they do not go unattended.

But that’s not all. Responding contingently to a baby’s vocalization is key. Babies are sensitive to the effect that their behavior has on the people and environment around them. In a recent study, researchers at the University of York and James Madison University tested an app that responded to the language-like utterances of six-month-old babies with a visual reward. The app produced colorful, moving shapes every time a baby made a sound and this seemed to result in infants vocalizing more and more to produce these shapes. Thus, when babies initiate a vocalization, responding immediately is critical. One could simply respond to the babies’ vocalizations by talking to them.

But why stop there? Interactive apps and toys may be used to support contingent responding to babies’ vocalizations. Consider a talking book that a parent could operate to produce a sound when the child coos or vocalizes a sound. An app that plays music or produces visual rewards contingent on babies’ vocalizations. A dolphin hung over a crib that does a backflip every time it detects a baby's speech. Such additional tools could be used to support the quality and contingency of a parent’s reactions to the child’s vocalizations, with an ultimate aim to enrich their speech and produce a solid foundation for early word use.


Shuffrey LC, Firestein MR, Kyle MH, et al. Association of Birth During the COVID-19 Pandemic With Neurodevelopmental Status at 6 Months in Infants With and Without In Utero Exposure to Maternal SARS-CoV-2 Infection. JAMA Pediatr. Published online January 04, 2022. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.5563

Keren-Portnoy, T., Daffern, H., DePaolis, R. A., Cox, C., Brown, K. I., Oxley, F., & Kanaan, M. (2021). "Did I just do that?"-Six-month-olds learn the contingency between their vocalizations and a visual reward in 5 minutes. Infancy : the official journal of the International Society on Infant Studies, 26(6), 1057–1075.