March 1, 2022

Deep Breathing 101

How to help a child with anxiety by teaching them to breathe

At rest, you likely pay little attention to your breath. However, when you experience a stressor, whether emotional or physical, you might become acutely aware of your breathing patterns. As part of your body's automatic stress response, you begin to take quick, shallow inhalations and exhalations, your heart rate quickens, and your blood pressure rises.

Regulation Tools

For your child, learning the skills to control their breath mindfully can be one of the most effective tools for bringing their body from a stressed and activated state back into a state of rest and regulation. Deep, calming breaths have been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, the nerve in the brain responsible for sending information to the internal organs. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, heart rate and blood pressure lower, muscles relax, and a signal is sent to the brain saying it is okay to relax.

Although this skill seems intuitive, kids often need assistance and education to learn deep, restorative breathing skills. With some creativity and brief coaching, your child can learn these incredibly useful tools for self-regulation and soothing.

Three points are essential to keep in mind as you teach your child the critical skill of deep breathing.

1. Belly Breathing

An important skill is belly breathing, otherwise known as diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is breathing in a way that pushes down the diaphragm, the respiratory muscle found at the bottom of the ribcage. This process allows for more significant expansion and oxygen exchange in the lower lobes of the lungs.

You can help your child develop the skill of diaphragmatic breathing by teaching them to breathe in a way that pushes their belly out when they breathe in and flattens their belly as they blow the air out. Tell your child to blow their belly up like a balloon as they breathe in and let the air out of the balloon as they breathe out.

Note: Many children believe taking a deep breath involves raising their shoulders up to their ears to "show you" how big their breath is. Let your child do this the first time they try diaphragmatic breathing and then ask, "Do you breathe with your shoulders?" When they say no, demonstrate how to keep your body relaxed while filling up your "balloon," focusing only on the breath.

2. Slow Inhale

Often kids are coached to take "deep" breaths when, in reality, we are trying to coach them to take slow breaths since it is possible to take quick deep breaths.

Encourage your child to slow their breath down when they breathe in and out. Kids typically need cues to slow their breath. Count during their inhale so they can hear the difference between a slow and fast breath. Intentionally taking slow, steady breaths sends a signal to the brain that it is okay to return to a resting state.

3. Long Exhale

Inhalation and exhalation have distinctive roles in our neurological response. Inhaling is neurologically tied to a stress response. Remember that last time you got startled. Did you take a quick breath in? Exhaling is neurologically linked to the brain's relaxation response. That's why we sigh when we're relieved. Lengthening your exhale stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's response while at rest, and signals to the brain it is time to relax.

Encourage your child to take a big, slow breath in but do not overlook the importance of taking a slow, long breath out as well. To get the full relaxing benefit of deep breathing, a slow, long exhale must follow a deep breath in.

Bring Breathing Skills to Life for Kids

Just like with any new skills, kids need ample practice time before it becomes intuitive. Kids can have fun learning and practicing calming breathing techniques with the imaginative breathing activities in the Wondergrade app. As you work with your child and follow along with the Wondergrade app breathing actives, remember to focus on expanding the belly, slowing the breath, and lengthening the exhale.

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