Screaming Babies in Mass, and on the Internet

Deacon Greg opened up a can of worms the other day when he posted a letter from a reader asking why parents with screaming children don’t remove their kids from Mass.

The letter-writer has Meniere’s disease, and loud, high-pitched noises are physically detrimental to her. I read her letter with true sympathy, read the comment section with sympathy for most commenters, and then sat down to write this because there were a few comments that literally left me astounded.

In regard to the general debate, I think there’s a conflation of terms that is causing confusion. Most of the commenters tried to address this, and I’ll do my best here as well. “Screaming” is not the same thing as fussing, but there is a tendency for adults who are not parents, or even who are not parents of the child in question, to feel the noise/agitation more intensely, just as there is a tendency for parents who have a screamer (*ahem Lincoln*) to become desensitized to the volume. That being said, for me and my friends, both here in Ave Maria and in Dallas, the norm is to tolerate a baby who starts fussing a bit for a bit. Sometimes they’ll go to sleep, and the distraction of getting out of a pew and getting to the back of the Church only to arrive there with a dead-asleep baby and have to repeat the performance all over again can be worse than a few minutes of fussing. But parents have a radar. When it becomes clear that my kid is not going to settle down, we go to the back of the Church. (Not just the back, but the narthex. In my opinion, changing geographical locations when a baby is being disruptive doesn’t help a whole lot, but a solid set of doors does.)

That actually seems to be the norm at most of the parishes I’ve visited. Usually I don’t encounter a baby who is allowed to actually scream all the way through Mass. Baby noises and mild fussing are in a different category, and I believe they should be tolerated just as we would tolerate an adult with a cough or a habit of sighing or murmuring. However, I have been at the rare Mass where that does happen, or where a toddler is allowed to talk at full volume, run through the pews, throw things, etc. I understand those things do happen, and I don’t think there’s really a defense for allowing a child to run wild in Mass. But the vast majority of the parents I see are trying to teach their children how to behave, and some kids are more difficult than others.

Here are the things about this debate that get me, though. First, this comment at Deacon Greg’s blog:

“When I read these posts from parents of young children who say they need God’s grace and that is why they bring their young children to Mass, I consider that to be selfish. We ALL need to look out for one another. It is NOT “all about me” as so many in this generation believe. I come from a different time, as I said in my previous posts, when folks were much more respectful and wouldn’t think of keeping, or even bringing a young child to Mass. “

This kind of attitude makes me livid. Telling parents that they should stay at home on Sundays until their children are old enough to behave, or that they should “tag-team” Mass so that their children never get to go to Mass with both parents and all their siblings and Sunday becomes a stressful, all-day affair instead of a time for God and then a time for family, is unloving. It’s uncharitable. It’s against Church teaching. And it’s just nasty.

I understand that truly screaming children can be frustrating and even cause pain in others, but I’ve been to enough Masses in enough different parishes in enough different states to know that such a thing is only the norm at certain types of Masses. It’s a simple thing to avoid those. Most parents, however, will not let a child scream all the way through Mass without removing him or her. But this person is saying that bringing a child to Mass is selfish, because children bother other people. Apparently parents of young children who would like God’s grace are being selfish, since their children’s presence spoils the reception of God’s grace for other people.

We should all look out for one another, and that includes parents of young children, people who are sensitive to loud noises, and cranky people who apparently hate children. I think the best way to look out for the latter is to keep bringing the kids to Mass. As long as the Church continues to exist, she will be full of babies, children, elderly, teenagers, cranks, and sinners. Trying to remove the children until some undefined age when they will no longer be bothersome is absolutely against Church teaching, and against the words of Christ himself.

Which brings me to the next jaw-on-the-floor moment. This is an update from the original letter-writer:

“People like to say that because the Church encourages couples to have children that we are obligated to have babies & young children at Mass.  It seems to be that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me,” He wasn’t teaching in the synagogue!”


But seriously, what?

I am so confused by this argument,  which was latched onto and repeated several times in the comment section. Our faith, people, is not about a place, like the synagogue. It’s about a person. Christ. That’s who we go to see on Sundays. Christ literally said, “Let the little children come to me.” He didn’t say, “unless I’m in the synagogue, or in Mass; then, keep them home so they don’t disturb the people who are really trying to focus on Me.” Actually, can you imagine Christ saying that? Saying, “hey, those kids get in the way of other people praying, so keep them home” or “it’s selfish of you to want My graces for yourself when the presence of your children bothers some of your fellow parishioners. Wait till the kids are older until you come see Me again.” If you can, you know a different Christ than the one I know. I think we should take him at his word and let them come to him, in the same place he comes to us: in the Mass.

Mass is about Christ, after all, not about us. It’s not about what we “get out of it.” There are graces, sure, but the goal shouldn’t be to swing by Mass like you’d swing by Trader Joe’s for your weekly load of graces. The point is Christ. To worship Christ. To be with Christ. Even if it’s painful (which it often is). Even if it’s uncomfortable. Even if it’s a weekly beating to take 4 kids 7 and under to Mass. The point is Christ, not us.

I can’t help but think that this discussion wouldn’t even come up if we weren’t all extraordinarily selfish, attending Mass for what we “get” out of it, instead of what we give. We’re all behaving like those screaming babies, wanting everything around us to change so that we are happy and comfortable. But as Christian adults, we have no justification for that. We’re asked to lay down our lives for each other, as Christ did. We should give our time, our comfort, our love, ourselves, for the sake of Christ, just as he gave himself. The Mass is completely centered around that sacrifice. How much cognitive dissonance is there in insisting that other people accommodate you so that you can pay closer attention to this reminder that Christ died for us and told us to do the same for each other?

By all means, love your fellow parishioners enough to take the screaming baby out; love your baby enough to address the fact that he or she is truly agitated. But don’t stay home for five years or turn Sundays into a whirlwind of tag-teaming chaos. Let’s all just do what Christ says we should, and love one another as ourselves. For the people who would like babies to be removed so they are not disturbed, remove yourself instead. For the people who would like everyone else to embrace the vitality of life that babies and children bring, don’t return the next scowl with a scowl of your own; take the baby to narthex and pray (without irony or bitterness) that God would bless the scowler with a peaceful Mass. Wouldn’t it be so much simpler if we all actually loved each other, instead of trying to prove each other wrong all the time?



  • Mary

    It’s amazing how neatly this post dovetails with your post ‘Other People’s Kid’ from earlier this month. Both of which I love. I’m so grateful for my parish, with it’s large African community, many of whom are still congratulating me and my husband on the birth of our daughter… for the third month in a row!

  • priest’s wife

    perhaps the very first commenter is being called to the religious life! Some convents take ‘late’ vocations- perhaps her need for silence is a call from God to be a contemplative

  • Sparki

    When my husband and I were looking for a church, we were appalled at how many (protestant) congregations didn’t allow children to worship with their parents. It was a key factor in me being open to the Catholic Church, were kids are always welcome. No matter how many you have, no matter how little they are, no matter how tough it is to keep them corralled in a pew. A few weeks ago, there was a child who screamed all through the readings at Mass in my parish. He was actually in the CRY ROOM, a section of the choir loft that has been sectioned off with glass. but the poor child was screaming SO loud and stamping his feet, everybody in the church could hear him clearly. Sometime during the Gospel, I realized that the child was screaming, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” When Father started his homily and he was still screaming it, I got up, left the pews and walked up to the cry room, where I found a 2-year-old huddled in the corner sobbing, “I’m sorry!” and his stony-faced grandmother sitting on the other side, ignoring him. I asked her if I could help, and she said no. By then, the little boy had quieted down, and I looked over at him. “Now that you are quiet, can I read you a story?” He nodded, and I pulled one of the children’s Bible story books off the well-stocked shelf and read him two pages. Then I looked him in the eye and said, “If you can be quiet, you can look at any of these books until Father is done celebrating Mass.” He smiled at me and nodded, and I returned to the pews. I’m sure Grandma was furious with me, but the poor kid was (a) apologizing and (b) disruptive – probably to get the forgiveness he wanted for whatever he had originally done wrong, and she wasn’t going to do a thing about it. I hope I didn’t scare them away from church (I had seen her before but not him), but honestly, sometimes all it takes is a little common sense on the adult’s part to keep a child content and possibly even engaged during Mass. My three kids were alternately fussy and embarrassing and sometimes even rude despite our efforts to make sure they were well-fed, well-rested, wearing a dry diaper and engaged as much as possible at their age/stage. We took them out if they were noisy, stood them against a blank wall until they were quiet, and brought them back in again. Seemed to work out just fine.

    • aimer

      The thing is, you have NO idea what was going on there. Maybe she knew the child better than you and knew that sometimes he just had to scream it out. Maybe he was saying he was sorry because he spit on her or someone else and he knew she was upset with him.

      Honestly, despite your smugness, the only reason he listened to you was because you are a stranger. That’s how kids are. Please don’t ever judge another family and their parenting until you’ve lived in their home and dealt with all they are dealing with. Everyone parents in their own way and just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Each one of my children has a very different personality. I have one that has to be ignored in order to understand her wrongs, she HATES being ignored and will quickly make things right to get back into our graces. I have another who can’t stand too much noise, so it might look like I’m coddling him when he’s acting hyper and I’m just rubbing his back. I could go on but I won’t. I hope you see the point that it’s not your place to judge. It would have been far more respectful if you had asked if she needed help and when she told you no, you left and allowed her to deal with her child in her own way. I would have been livid if someone had come in and interfered with my discipline methods. You don’t understand how far of a setback that can be for a parent with a difficult child. Some children are looking for anyone or anything to ‘prove’ that you’re the bad guy and you were it.

  • Mary Colletti

    A Protestant preacher once said crying babies r like good intentions, they should be carried out immediately. However, a very devout. charismatic, Franciscan Priest at my parish was saying Mass one weekday, and a baby was crying and screaming through most of Mass. I myself find it difficult to concentrate with that. At the start of the Consecration, he was upset, and asked that the mother give the baby a bottle or whatever it wanted so he cd continue. She took the baby back to the cry room.

    We raised three children, and had respect for others not to disturb them when they may be pouring their hearts out to God and trying to hear what He at be telling them. Every Parish we lived in had a quiet room or a nursery at one Mass, so we attended that one. As infants they were usually sleeping. If they got fussy, a bottle would satisfy them and put them back to sleep. Can’t remember a problem with infants. Older babies, 6-18 months were problematic. The minute they started getting loud, one of us took him/her to the nursery.

    In the toddler stages, we explained that if they didn’t sit still or made a lot of noise, they would have to go to nursery rather than sitting with us. Now the nursery was not a bad place, they had a lovely woman wiith teen volunteers who played with them, read them books, usually Religous ones for children. But little kids being little kids,they wanted to be in Church and misbehave.

    We felt that all attending Mass should have a peaceful, quiet ambience in order to fully participate, and as our children grew older, they appreciated going to Mass every Sunday together.

    Finally, you wouldn’t take a crying baby to a movie, a theatre play, a concert, so why to Mass where it is mor important.

    • CatherineNY

      Amen! I have taken my children to Mass for many years, but we would take them out immediately if they made noise. Same goes for concerts, etc. And they have indeed learned to behave properly in a variety of settings.

    • Emily

      I’m sorry, what?!

      “you wouldn’t take a crying baby to a movie, a theatre play, a concert, so why to Mass where it is mor important.”

      This is the attitude that this post is SPECIFICALLY battling against. Respectful moves towards the back or nursery rooms or whatever is fine, but not bringing a baby to mass for the same principles as not bringing them to a concert, play or movie?! Please tell me you’re not serious. A baby there has nothing to gain. A baby at church has EVERYTHING to gain, and this kind of ageist, elitest attitude gets people nowhere.

  • deltaflute

    I hope that you don’t mind that I linked your article.

  • Eleonor

    Great article! I am all for taking kids to mass. They need to see Jesus too, and in my experience most parents do their best to keep them quiet and not disturb other parishioners. Most parents also go out when they see that the baby is not going to stop crying or the toddler is going to trow a tantrum and they don’t take their little kids to Good Friday services or adoration – although I tried that last one once.

    And honestly, how is a lively toddler playing dropping his hymn book and singing out of tune or a baby wailing once in a while, worser than somebody text messaging during consecration, teens talking non-stop, the person before you smelling as hell or some other disturbance? To me all those disturbances don’t hide Christ. Christ is there for everyone of us, and we can’t expect the others to be what we would like them to be. Jesus let sinners come to him and he let children come to him. He let everybody come to him who wanted to see him and we can hardly think that those people were all quiet, well-dressed, respectful and well -behaved. That didn’t stop Him of loving them.

    When I converted to catholicism and started to go back to mass, I had nobody to watch my three months old in the mean time, so I had to take her. Church attendance in our part of the country is very low and most people that sit in mass are old, so we weren’t really inconspicuous and it took a while before I stopped feeling very self-aware and totally stressed out. However, then and now at our new parish, people come to talk to us after mass to compliment us on how well behaved she is – even when I don’t agree at all that time – and how much joy it gives them to see a little kid in mass. People that never seem to smile come to greet my daughter with great enthousiasm and our priest is super grateful when there are young families attending mass. This experience has braught me to believe that not only children should be tolerated in mass, they are desperately needed.

    • Eleonor

      And on a second thought: a young mother I know has been longing to go back to church after not attending for years. However she doesn’t dare to attend because she’s too afraid of what people will say of her and her lively kid that is not used to attending mass. I find this really really sad. To all the people who want to ban children out of churches: do you really want to be that person that slams the church door in the face of young mothers like her?

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  • Christina

    I attend daily mass regularly, at the church where my two older sons go to school. I have been going regularly since my baby was about 3 months old or so. I had gone regularly before getting pregnant with him, and struggled in the back with my middle son who was 2-3 years old. Now that my baby is 14 months old, he is more active, but I also participate in the Liturgy of the Hours. There is no crying room at our church, and no nursery for daily mass. Sometimes he has his fussy days, and other times he is a little angel. It all depends on the perspective of other parishoners really. I breastfeed, and that often calms him down, but there is a lady at the mass who will glare, sigh, and take the Lords name in vain if he fusses too much. She has also complained about me breastfeeding him during the mass (something I think Our Lady of Le Leche wouldn’t be happy about). I have tried taking him to the back when I couldn’t get him to calm down, but also found that you can hear a baby just as well from back there as you can up front.

    If I stay to the back, I miss communion, as my baby has a gluten issue, and I can’t receive the host during the week, but can receive the blood. If I stay to the back, by the time I get up front, it is gone. The mass is where I get my strength, and by taking my baby to mass, he gets exposed to it. After all, how will a child ever learn how to behave at mass if they never go?

    • Kristen inDallas

      “After all, how will a child ever learn how to behave at mass if they never go?”

      They don’t. I took my son to mass as an infant but from about 6months to 2 years of age he was pretty “full of life” so I caved to the pressure of those that don’t like babies at mass and avoided taking him. Now he’s 3, too old for our parish’s nursery and has no clue what kind of behavior is expected. He doesn’t cry for no reason anymore but he really does not understand the concept of not talking about everything he sees, as that is just something that is completely foriegn in his life. (Even at school preschoolers are not yet expected to raise their hands or not talk). So yeah, at whatever point you start taking kids to mass, there is going to be an adjustment period. People are going to give you nasty looks, and that’s just the way it is. I’d say keep doing what you’re doing. Babies are cuter and easier to forgive. :)

  • Genevieve

    Also, I would like mothers to get a little respect, especially sahm. Mothers are building the church out of tHeir own bodies, nourishing it, enduring the screams,that are making everyone else mad to hear even off and on for 45 minutes, for our entire day. And night. Being a mother, I NEED the graces that I can only assume I’m getting through osmosis as I corral the little ones. These graces are not just for me, but for the church through me and the horde I am raising. I have a problem with priests and parishioners who seem to think I am ENJOYING the screaming and the fussing and the constant wiggling. That I wouldn’t rather stay home with the little heathens. I would for the most part, but I show up because worship of God and reception of grace goes way beyond how I feel about it. Showing up, it’s not about ME, in fact, having kids – it’s not about ME either. It is the gift I give to the Church. My body, my life, my throbbing eardrums.

    Ps. I take my kids out when they are not settling down either, but there is always some squawking while I take just a second or two more to nurse discreetly instead of just letting the breast hang out for the duration.

  • Genevieve

    And before people say “this woman is evidence that the Church should allow artificial birth control” – my kids (3 of them, under 6) are my pride, my joy, and my purgatory. They force me to live for something other than myself and for that I thank God. Most days.