Taking Children to Communion

I have seen many mistakes made over the years when watching parents and godparents take children to communion. Some of them are risky (the child nearly kicked the chalice), some are imprudent (sending a toddler up by himself) and some are just examples of making things harder for everyone. There are many new parents or newly-illumined parents who honestly don’t know the proper way to do it and sometimes there is no one to set a good example. To that end, I decided to write a post on how to take babies and children to communion. This is much more a practical guide and does not get into the whole discussion of why we take babies to communion, etc.

Small Infants

The biggest danger with a small infant (and bigger ones, really) is that he will spit up right after taking communion. The priest will typically not give any of the Body to a baby, just the Blood, yet we all know how babies can spit up anything. Here are some suggestions for small infants:

(1) Nurse/feed the baby no less than 30 minutes before communion. This gives time for the tummy to settle, gas to be burped out and some digestion to take place. If the baby has a full tummy he is more likely to spit up.

(2) When approaching the chalice, hold the baby in the crook of your arm, choosing the same arm as the priest’s dominant hand (the one he’s using to hold the spoon). So if he’s right-handed, hold the baby in your right arm. You want to make it as easy as possible to get the spoon in the baby’s mouth without spilling and the priest having to contort his arm to make it to the baby’s mouth is more likely to result in an accident.

(3) Hold the baby on an incline, not flat, when receiving communion. Make sure the attendants wipe the baby’s mouth (or do it yourself) carefully to wipe away any traces that may have dribbled out. Do NOT immediately put a pacifier in the baby’s mouth in a misguided attempt to “get the communion down”. If you do that, now you have the Blood on the pacifier.

(4) Handle the baby carefully after communion. Don’t jiggle him up and down or thump him strongly on the back. Also, don’t hold him absolutely flat.

(5) Lay in a supply of large, inexpensive bibs for communion. Don’t bother with the pretty, frilly bibs with crosses embroidered on them. If the baby does spit up (and it will probably happen at least once), use the bib to carefully clean up the baby’s face. Give the bib to an acolyte or your priest to be burned with the other sacred items for disposal. If the baby spits up on his clothing, give them the clothing too. This goes for anything the baby spits up on. Now you see why you’re trying to avoid spitting up at all costs! I usually kept a cloth diaper tucked under the baby’s chin, extending it over the shoulders and down the front, to take care of any spitting that occurred and protect the clothing.

[In the photo below you can see the baby (that’s Pickles – about 6 weeks) being held at a reclining angle. He is in his godmother’s left arm because the priest is left-handed. There is a large burp cloth ready. (That’s me peering over her shoulder.)]

Older Infants

Once babies are big enough to support their heads adequately, you can consider taking them to communion in a more upright position. Alternately you can continue to take them in the crook of your arm. It depends on your comfort level and the age of the baby. Here are some suggestions for these babies:

(1) No matter what position you hold the baby in (upright or reclining), use the hand not actually holding the baby to restrain the baby’s hands. Babies like to grab things and the shiny chalice looks most interesting as does the ornate spoon. You don’t have to use force, just hold the hands.

(2) In addition, if you have a baby old enough to put some force into a kick you might want to hold the baby in such a way that he doesn’t have a clear shot at the chalice or spoon with his foot. Reclining-aged babies are not really risky in this regard but the upright ones are. I’ll try to take some photos using a doll to demonstrate the methods of holding a baby for communion. It’s not as complicated as it seems in writing.

(3) These babies can still spit up so take all due precautions. This age is much more likely to be upright on your shoulder so do spread out a burp cloth just in case. Other suggestions for the small infants apply here too.

[Note: Don’t take a baby/toddler/child to communion with his cup or bottle! I’ve seen parents drop cups/bottles on the floor right at the chalice. The child doesn’t need to put anything in his mouth right after communion anyway.]

[In the first photo the baby (and this doll is clearly more of a size to be held in the crook of the arm, but bear with me) is held with one hand crossing the arms on the chest and the other supporting the baby under the legs. In the second, the baby is held with the right hand the same but the left is now across the torso and legs.]

Toddlers

Hopefully this toddler was baptized as an infant and regularly taken to communion. If that is the case (and it is strongly encouraged) then you will likely never have any problems taking them to communion ever after. If the baby was baptized as a toddler or was not taken to church then you may have some problems on your hands. You might encounter this in a family who became Orthodox while the youngest children were in this age range. It’s hardly their fault, but you may have problems taking the toddler/baby to communion. Hopefully some of these suggestions will make it easier:

(1) Hold the child upright in front of you, using one hand to hold the child’s arms crossed on his chest and the other to either support him under the thighs (he is “sitting” on your arm) or across his body holding him snugly against you. I have seen toddlers taken to communion on the adult’s hip and it rarely works. The child has far too much range of motion and tends to turn away from the chalice, lunging around the adult’s shoulder. Because the adult is using one arm just to hold the child on the hip, the other arm simply can’t reach well enough to turn the child back around. Attempts to force the head back around merely results in hysterics. Remember, flailing arms and legs are not smart around the chalice.

(2) If the child resists and starts crying, don’t force it. It’s not worth the risk that the Body and Blood will be spit out if they do make it into the child’s mouth and the child is now associating going to communion with a scary experience. I’ve seen toddlers cry in terror when approaching the chalice for months and years before they finally calmed down. Don’t insist that the priest “keep trying” to force the spoon in his mouth. Sheesh.

(3) The child of this age is perfectly able to ingest antidoron (the blessed bread) after communion. Do not let him reach in the bowl himself, grabbing six pieces and reducing several to crumbs. Choose one piece, dip it in the zapifka (if it is available) and place the bread in the toddler’s mouth yourself. They can’t hold it without generating crumbs and every crumb that falls needs to be ingested or disposed of in the same manner as other sacred things. Don’t ask me how many times I’ve witnessed the event I just described.

(4) The child should not eat or drink anything else immediately after communion. No juice or cheerios. These things shouldn’t be in church anyway. Don’t let him have a pacifier (hopefully this is on the way out in general) and try to prevent him putting his thumb in his mouth. Start this training from the beginning and you won’t have any problems.

Preschoolers

The child by now has reached some independence. It is tempting to send him up to communion alone because it “looks cute” or shows off what a good parent you are. Nonsense. I don’t trust preschoolers farther than I can throw them (I’m guessing about six feet, but I haven’t checked.).

(1) If your child can walk respectfully, then allow him to walk up to communion, staying immediately behind him. Encourage him to cross his arms on his chest [note: this is OCA and Russian practice], stay in line, don’t push, don’t jump up and down, don’t talk, etc. If he has trouble controlling himself, pick him up, holding his arms crossed on his chest, and carry him to communion. Don’t make a big deal out of it or scold him, just pick him up.

(2) If he manages to get all the way to the chalice on his own steam, pick him up anyway, lifting him to the level of the spoon. Preschoolers are short. They look even shorter if your priest is standing on a step. Please spare the priest’s back and do not make him bend down that far. It’s also a rather precarious position for someone who is holding something that must not be spilled. [Note, if the Blood does spill on the carpet, the carpet must be cut out and burned. This is no joke.]

(3) If you have a preschooler with some measure of self-control, allow him to reach into the bowl himself for the antidoron but he must be supervised. Show him how to eat the bread, cupping his hand under his chin to catch crumbs. If he drops crumbs, show him how to pick them up and eat them. Naturally, if he is unable to do this, do it yourself.

(4) Stay in church. I’m not sure why people feel it is appropriate to take children out of church as soon as they receive communion. Liturgy is not over.

Older children

By now, at age 4-5 and up (depending on personality of child), you can usually send the child to communion without you (if you’re not receiving). The first few times I do this I tend to hover off to the side, just in case I’m needed. If the child’s behavior is such that he is not predictable, continue to walk up there behind him, even if you’re not receiving. You will be in a good position to correct errant behavior immediately. If a child this age or older acts up in line you can quietly pull him out of line, take him off to the side/back of the church, explain how we do and do not act when approaching the chalice, and, if you think it appropriate, get back in line. I think it is a serious thing to prevent a child from going to communion (unless he’s sick to his stomach or some other obvious situation) and don’t do it lightly. For children who are old enough to know better, engaging in a shoving fight right while in line for communion can result in prevention from communion that day. This is at your discretion. Please talk with your priest or spiritual father about it. Children brought up in the Church will understand the seriousness of being prevented from communing and it will make a big impression. But again, this is not done wantonly and you should talk with your priest about it.

For any age child, if he suddenly becomes stubborn and won’t get in line for communion, don’t force it. You can gently encourage, but don’t make an issue of it. The chances of this becoming a recurring thing are very slim. In the event that it does, it needs to be investigated. 

Continue to monitor behavior from this age up, making corrections as needed for sloppy behavior.

8 thoughts on “Taking Children to Communion

  1. We are very careful with communion with our kids, and have required a dedicated communion bib with all of them until quite an old age, but my last two babies have had serious throwing up problems (one just bad reflux, the other has more systemic digestive problems) and our priest requires that the baby not spit up for an hour after communion (for burning purposes). What this has meant in effect is that my youngest two rarely received communion for their first year of life. I'm not one to question a priest, but I find the one-hour rule a bit arbitrary and frustrating, as the first year is the best time to get babies used to taking communion. Since I don't want to burn everything they own, I just couldn't risk it.

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  2. How about taking more than one small person up to receive?

    As far as picking up a child, I talked to the priest (handy, since he's my husband), and we agreed that after the child is old enough to cross his arms and say his name clearly at the right time, I don't need to pick the child up.

    … but sometimes we aren't in line to receive from my husband, and I'm already juggling a littler one who is liable to take off!

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  3. Magda, I've been in that position many, many times since we had no help when we were at seminary and I had three little ones. By the time I was taking three to communion I was carrying the baby with one arm and ushering the toddler and preschooler with my other arm and knees. When we got to the chalice I picked up the preschooler with my free arm. When she was done I put her down (instructing her to stay put) and picked up the toddler to receive. When she was done I put her down (instructing her to stay put) and let the baby receive. Then I received. Then I ushered all of us to the antidoron. I had good upper body strength. I do remember one Matins, when the time came to be anointed by the bishop I ushered the two little ones to the icon, picking one up on one hip and one on the other, letting them kiss the icon and doing so myself, then turning and walking back to the bishop to be anointed. I didn't put them down because I knew I had to pick them up for the bishop to reach them anyway. It was the cause of much merriment amongst the bishop (Herman) and the subdeacons because not only did I have a child on each hip, I was sporting a large pregnant belly in between. I waddled away with as much dignity as I could muster.

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  4. Good tips! A lot of people just don't know. (God knows I never thought about this sort of thing before I started nannying for an Orthodox family and could takes the babies to communion when we went to church.)

    What do you do about babies/toddlers that won't take communion (start panicking/screaming/whatever as soon as they get close to the chalice). Do you force them or leave them be until they chill out, even if that takes months? On the one hand, at a parish in my area the priest forces the baby to take communion and it's an unfortunate sight (though at least that way he gets communion), but on the other hand I've had friends whose kids rarely (if ever) take communion, literally for years (which is unfortunate in a different way). Thoughts?

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