Putting relationships at the centre of our care for babies and toddlers

Brain research shows that relationships are the linchpin of early brain development. It is the ‘serve and return’ communication from birth on that strengthens the connections in the brain that lead to development of social skills, communication and learning skills. The serve and return idea has come from The Harvard Child Development Centre research team and is a way of thinking about early communication. The baby makes a signal, it might be a smile or a mouth movement or a cry or just a loving look. This is the serve. The adult responds by returning what the baby has done (except cry of course) saying to the baby, ‘I see you are wanting to talk with me’. This is the return. The baby responds again and so the ‘conversation’ continues. Or in the case of the cry the adult says something like, ‘I can see you are wanting to he held, fed, have a sleep etc.’ and responds to the baby’s signal.

The Early Years Learning Framework highlights the importance of relationships in its principles.

How do we put this into practice in early childhood services? Some services have primary caregivers whose role is to develop a secure relationship with the infants in their care. They involve parents with the primary caregiver so parents can see the care that their baby is getting. Relationships with parents support relationships with children. They may make it part of their policy to ask parent and baby to make several visits to the service to start feeling comfortable there before starting, if possible. And they make sure that staff know how the baby is parented at home so they can use familiar practices. At first they may change rosters to ensure that the primary caregiver is there to feed and put the baby to sleep.

How else can we put relationships at the centre of the curriculum? We can make nappy changing time and feeding time relationship-focused by talking to the baby about what we are doing, making it baby-paced and, where there is an opportunity, perhaps playing little games with the baby. We can also make it conversation time where we just chat with the baby.

One thing that has been shown to be really helpful is language: talking and listening. At a conference I went to some years ago there was a presentation about some research completed in early childhood services in Australia. One thing that stuck in my mind was that the communication between educators and each child was on average was only seven times per child in a session. The study showed that most of the interaction was not relationship-building conversation but was all about giving information or direction.

To improve the quality of care in your own centre you could start by asking—how many conversations and ‘serve and return’ type interactions happen with each child, including babies, in your service? This is how we can make relationships the centre of all interaction we have with babies.



Harvard Centre for the Developing Child: http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/serve-and-return/

Fleer, M., & Linke, P. (2016). Connecting with babies. Canberra: Early Childhood Australia. Available from: www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/shop/product/connecting-with-babies