Think your infant is too young to pray? Below I outline three simple things that can help lay the foundation for prayer as an infant.
by Ryan Langr
This Lent one of our family goals was to expose our infant daughter to a life of family prayer. The challenging part was finding a good way to do that—she still can’t speak, and sometimes hits herself in the face when trying to eat. What we decided was to help her “practice” the sign of the cross during our meal time prayer. This involved me taking her right hand and moving it in the correct action, ending with her hands together. At first I doubted this was actually effective, but I’m trusting that it planted a seed.
Prayer doesn’t end with Lent though, and we want to start praying with our daughter as early as possible. It seemed so tricky, almost pointless, at such an early age, that I was almost tempted to skip it. It’s easy to say, “We’ll start this when she’s older,” but after thinking about it for a while I’ve come up with a couple ideas to help instill a life of prayer into our children from a very early age.
From my college days I remembered learning about James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. He was a psychologist who theorized how people at different stages of life understand their faith. He argues that the first stage is primarily symbolic and subconscious. Pondering all these things together lead me to three suggestions for infant prayer.
Stories, Ritual, Witness
Read Stories. Read stories to your infant that communicate spiritual truths. This could include classics such as Lord of the Rings or Narnia, or children’s books and bible stories. In addition to helping your child learn to speak and read, this will help them internalize a lot of the general truths of our faith like sacrifice, love, grace, and forgiveness. Your child may not realize they’re learning, but a seed will definitely start to take root. They don’t even have to understand the story: giving them a love of “myth” and narrative will help them to appreciate the stories in the Bible once they’re older.
Practice Physical Prayer. The first two years of a child’s life are spent on motor skills and muscle memory. This is a great time to help establish good “prayer posture.” Start to introduce your baby to the Sign of the Cross, or just how to fold hands in prayer. Model and help them to sit still for a short period of time with their heads bowed. When they’re a little older, you can have them practice kneeling by the side of the bed. As Catholics, we believe that what we do with our bodies affects what we do with our mind and spirit. Go the extra step and do this during Mass! Develop these sacramental and ritual practices early to set the stage for verbal prayer later.
Witness. As with any stage that your child is in, the best thing you can do is to provide a consistent witness to the Christian life. Pray before every meal and before bed. Let your child see you praying, and get in the habit of taking them to church. In fact, as long as they’re not being too disruptive, keep them in the pew for the entire Mass. This life will be ingrained into who they are and what they do without even knowing it, making the next stages in their spiritual development a little easier.
The great news is that all three of things ideas are easy, as long as you commit to doing them consistently. You might not think they’re having much of an effect on your child, but trust that God is watering the seeds you’re planting. What successes (or failures) have you had while helping your infant pray?