Don’t Hold Your Breath: Deep Breathing to Regulate

We know it’s important to breathe. Aside from a beating heart, it lets us know that we’re still alive. But it’s also an indicator of how we are doing internally.

From our last yoga post, breathing serves as a reflection of our emotional state, stress level, and state of mind. In our rhythm and timing post, we talked about how the brain structures that are responsible for timing are also linked to the regulation of our emotions, behavior, and arousal. By controlling our breath, we not only alter our mood, but also our rhythm and timing. But how do we teach our kids how to breathe? Don’t they just do it?

For this post, we’re focusing on breathing techniques to calm kids down in moments of stress or high arousal.

Taking deep, slow, controlled breaths can calm kids down by shifting their nervous system from a state of flight-fright-fight to one that is relaxed. A calmer frame of mind allows for better attention, behavior, retention of information, and the capability to learn something new. In fact, it’s been found that six complete breaths will change the oxygen levels in the blood, positively impacting arousal level and concentration.

By teaching your kids how to self-regulate through breathing, you provide them with a powerful and accessible tool that allows them to be in control of their arousal levels throughout the day, whether they’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, if they’re trying to relax to fall asleep, calming their body after physical activity, or if they’re attempting to reset from a busy day. No equipment needed.

A Few Pointers

Ease into It. Incorporate mindful breathing throughout your daily routine to help them get used to it and to better understand why they’re doing it in the first place. You can’t expect them to understand the concept of deep breathing when they’re in a moment of stress if they’ve never practiced it before (and trying it out in this state won’t do anyone any favors). The best time to teach deep breathing techniques is at night before bed.

In through the nose, out through the mouth. Encourage your child to breathe in through their nose as it allows for a deeper breath. If that’s tricky, have them focus on exhaling. By expelling as much air out as possible, it will help their inhale to be spontaneous and full.

Count it Out. As they practice their breath, have them count to four when inhaling, hold their breath for a second, and then exhale for a count of four. If that’s easy for them, increase the counts. Perhaps they’ll inhale for a count of five, hold for three, exhale for six. This is also known as box breathing or deep yoga breathing. The goal here is to bring awareness to themselves, their current arousal level, and experiencing the internal and emotional changes that are happening.

Add a Bit of Sensory. If your child is having difficulties understanding breath, use their other senses like sight, sound, or touch to help them out. You can have them place their hands on their belly and give it a gentle push while exhaling. Then have their belly extend, pushing their hand back out while breathing in. You can also have them make silly sounds while breathing out, or use a feather or a tissue to see how long they can make it move with just their breath.

Use their Imagination. The world of make-believe helps kids make sense of things, even breathing techniques. Tell them to pretend that they accidentally swallowed a balloon. Have them blow up the balloon by inhaling and deflating it by exhaling.

Try these other deep breathing scenarios with your child:

  • Smell the flowers. Imagine smelling a flower by breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth (throw a sigh in there for extra effect).
  • Blow out the Candle. Picture a birthday candle and have them take a deep breath in through the nose and exhale out the mouth to blow it out. You can have them pretend that there are so many candles and need to blow every one of them out to help them expel all the air out.
  • Bunny Breath. Take three quick sniffs through the nose and then one long exhale through the nose.
  • Snake Breath. Inhale slowly through the nose and breathe out through the mouth with a long, slow hissing sound.
  • Humming Bee Breath. Have your child inhale and then exhale through the nose while gently humming.

There are so many other breathing techniques out there, from pretending to sound like Darth Vader or mimicking the sound of the ocean to incorporate big arm movements to help them understand how much breath to take. Find what works best for your kiddo in terms of recalling what to do and what feels good to them. Remember the goal is for them to use these methods to help them self-regulate independently. If they like it, the more likely they will use it.

Moment of Truth

Okay, so it’s happening. Your child is feeling anxious, or their energy is ramping up to uncontrollable levels. Have no fear, we’ve trained for this moment!

  • Connect and Label. Following strategy 1 and 2 from our Whole Brain Child Series, connect with your child’s emotions with non-verbal gestures such as hugs, touch, and facial expressions. Help your kid find the words to what their feeling by labeling them (ex: “Sounds like you’re nervous” or “Looks like you have a lot of energy right now”).
  • Need Some Breathing Room. Find a quiet spot wherever you are (might be the car before going to a friend’s house, their bedroom, or even the bathroom). Start doing breathing exercises together, talking them through each step. Repeat until they are calm.

Practice What You Preach

Remember that children follow what we do, including how we handle stress. You can’t expect them to do breathing strategies if you don’t do it on a regular basis as well. When you get frustrated, don’t forget to breathe. You can also let your child know that you need a moment to yourself to catch your breath, taking a few deep ones to calm down.


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One Year Ago: Course Notes: The Whole-Brain Child Approach, Pt. 2
Two Years Ago: Xs and Os: All About Handwriting Readiness


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