Whether you hear it from a therapist, your yoga instructor, a friend, or your child’s teachers, I am sure you have heard about breathing strategies before. As an occupational therapist and yoga instructor, I can definitely attest to the benefits of deep breathing to help with calming you and your child.
First, let’s talk about why deep breathing can be helpful!
When you are calm, your breathing and heart rate is normal, and your muscles are relaxed. It’s how you might feel if you were happily watching your favourite show and relaxing (if that’s something you like to do of course). In this calm state, your body is in “rest and digest” mode.
When you experience a stressful event, your body goes into “fight, flight or freeze” mode (if you want to know more about this, check out this blog post). Your heart rate increases, your stomach stops digestion and your breathing becomes shallow.
The goal of calming exercises such as deep breathing, is to get your body back to rest and digest mode. Deep breathing can help your body get more oxygen into your blood, and can physically change your body to help lower your stress and calm down,
Before we get into a couple of my favourite techniques for kids, let’s talk about a few important things:
- Children often need help learning and practicing breathing techniques before they can use them in a tense situation. It is important to teach your child a breathing technique when they are calm and relaxed so they know the technique, and practice it in calm states as well. This way, when they are stressed, the breathing will be something they remember in their body, as often times the logic portion of our brain shuts off during a stressful time.
- It is important to remember that just because you’ve practiced these techniques with your child many times before, doesn’t mean they will be able to remember, initiate and perform this skill on their own in a tense situation. When your child needs to use this technique, you might need to bring them to a safe quiet space and guide them through the technique by breathing with them.
- Breathing techniques in yoga or on the internet often count to a certain number when inhaling and exhaling (ex: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds). Breathing is different for everyone; some people might feel confined or anxious if they are holding their breath for too long, so start with teaching a breathing technique to your child using 2 or 3 seconds and then they can increase that number if they feel comfortable. The goal is to calm the heart and slow the breathing.
Breathing techniques are something that takes time to learn and practice. If you think they might be beneficial for your child (or for you) make sure that you find a way to breathe that works for you, and make time to practice. For children, it might be helpful to also introduce some breathing props or visualizations – this helps the exercise be more concrete instead of an abstract idea. Here are some of my favourites, but if you know your child will connect with something better, get creative!
Hot Chocolate breathing
One of my favourite breathing visualizations is the hot chocolate breath. Perhaps it is because warm drinks are my favourite way to feel safe and cozy!
If your child loves warm drinks or soup, this might be something that they can connect with.
Get your child to pretend they are holding a cup in their hands. Tell them that we are going to take a big deep breath in together to pretend we’re smelling the yummy hot drink (whatever it is they like). Then we realize the drink is too hot, so when we take a big breath out, and blow on the drink to cool it down! Repeat this a couple times; you can either count a certain number of inhales and exhales (10 is usually the best number), or you can tell your child to let you know when they feel calm. When they feel calm, you can pretend to drink it together and make a big MMMMMMMM sound! Sometimes a little laughter can make all the difference!
To practice this skill you can definitely use a bubble wand so that kids can learn to visualize what happens when they are blowing bubbles! But don’t worry, in the moment when a child needs to use this technique they don’t NEED to have a bubble wand.
The steps for this one are laid out in this photo so you can print it and hang it somewhere your child can access if they like a visual reminder!
Imagine you have a wand to blow bubbles. Take a deep breath through your nose, and breathe out of your mouth as if you are blowing a bubble through a wand. Then repeat as many times as necessary!
Lazy 8 Breathing
Lazy 8 breathing is all about the figure 8. I have linked a little video that I made a while ago about how to use Lazy 8 breathing with a wall diagram.
You can teach your child to do figure 8 breathing with their finger, or with a prop such as a car or animal toy.
Have your child put their finger (or toy) at the top of the number 8. Breathe in slowly while drawing the number 8. Once you get back to the top, slowly breathe out while tracing the number 8 again. Repeat as many times as necessary.
The video I have shared uses an added visual of a drawn out roadmap that can be hung on the wall in a place your child can access it. My mom, who is a kindergarten teacher, actually taught me this version of the exercise. She used to have this roadmap hung just outside her classroom, with a toy car left next to it. Whenever the kid that she created it for needed a little break to calm down, she taught him to go outside, pick up the card and “drive” it along the track with the same breathing technique.
Something like this with an added visual, can be modified for your child’s interests. Maybe they like skating and have a toy that can pretend to skate along the track. Maybe it’s a horse trail with a little toy horse to gallop along the track. Whatever your child’s interests are can build into the strategy to help them remember and turn to it more!
Similar to lazy 8 breathing, where you are tracing an item, you can use different shapes to help your child breathe and calm down. They all follow the same concept, of tracing a shape with your fingers while you breathe, but some shapes may resonate better with different children. Here is a website going a bit more in depth with shape breathing and shows you some diagrams you can create to hang up in your home!
A rainbow can be a comforting and beautiful image for children to think about when they are having a tough time – the calm after the storm.
Again, you can use imagination to draw the rainbow, or in a classroom or home setting, maybe set up a quiet corner for the child to go that has a note pad and some colours to draw a rainbow. It might be a nice activity when teaching the breath, to at sit and draw the rainbow with your child so they can visualize how the rainbow looks and how the breathing connects. Practicing with and without markers can provide flexibility in this breathing pattern so that if you are out in public without markers and paper, they can still use this strategy with their finger and imagination.
Move your finger (or marker) from left to right to trace the rainbow while you breathe in slowly through your nose. Move your finger from right to left to trace the rainbow while you breathe out slowly from your mouth. Repeat as necessary!
More breathing activities with props
Some breathing strategies can use physical props, here are a couple ideas but you can definitely get creative with it!
I’ve added the link to the video below, but the visual and the movement of this sphere opening and closing while the child is breathing mirrors what should be happening to their belly as they breathing in and out.
Stuffed animal roller coaster
Have your child lay on their back with a stuffed animal on their belly. As they take a big breath in, get them to watch the stuffed animal move up, and then when they breathe out, get them to watch the stuffed animal move back down. This helps teach children to use their belly when they are taking deep breaths! Another alternative is to have them put their hands on their belly if they do not have a toy in the moment.
Using a pinwheel
Kids can use a pinwheel to practice breathing slower or quicker to see what speed works best for them to calm down. You can hold the pinwheel for them and get them to blow very hard and then blow very slow, and talk about what feels calm and happy. This way they can actually measure how they should be breathing.
Breathing with Sesame Street
And of course, I couldn’t end this post without sharing some of my favourite belly breathing videos with our favourite Sesame street monsters! If you have any questions or other suggestions, strategies, or creative ideas for belly breathing with your children, please share in the comments!
Breathe in, breathe out, you’re doing an incredible job being a parent, family member, teacher, therapist etc to your children 🙂