For most of us, breathing is an automatic process that we hardly notice. However, the simple act of inhaling and exhaling can have a great impact on our mood and thoughts. Deep breathing has long been used as a relaxation technique, and it's helpful for both children and adults.
"By teaching kids breathing exercises, we're giving them a valuable tool for their toolbox," says Stephanie Richardson, LCSW, Social Work Team Leader in the Emergency Department at Children's Health℠. "Children can use deep breathing to help them throughout the day, whether they're feeling overwhelmed or anxious, need to relax or go to sleep, to calm their body after exercising, or even just to pause and reset when they are high energy."
Learn more about breathing exercises for kids to help reduce stress and anxiety and improve overall well-being.
How can breathing exercises help children and teens?
Breathing exercises can help children and teens by:
- Relaxing the body
- Refocusing the mind
- Reducing stress and anxiety
- Lowering heart rate
- Increasing the body's oxygen levels, which can have calming effects
Taking deep, deliberate breaths can calm a person physically and mentally. Deep breathing techniques activate the parasympathetic nervous system (part of the nervous system that controls reactions to stress), as well as redirect the mind to a simple task, distracting from anxious thoughts.
What are types of breathing exercises for kids?
There are many different types of breathing exercises that can encourage kids to take deep breaths. Examples of breathing exercises for kids include feather breathing, balloon breathing, bubble breathing or counting breaths.
Belly breathing (also called diaphragmatic breathing) is one of the easiest breathing exercises for kids because there are no supplies needed, and the technique can be used anytime and anywhere. "Children and teens can implement belly breathing anywhere that they need to without drawing attention to themselves, whether they are starting to feel anxious in school or with friends," says Richardson. "This is a quick way to calm themselves in the moment, such as before tryouts, during a competition or just when they feel nervous."
How can you teach belly breathing to your child?
Here are steps to teach and practice deep belly breathing with your child:
- Ask your child to breathe normally and to notice how they're feeling at the moment.
- Have your child place one hand on their belly (above the belly button) and one hand on their upper chest.
- Tell your child to take a deep breath in through their nose, filling their lungs with air downwards towards the belly.
- As their belly expands up and out, notice their bottom hand rise.
- Then tell your child to breathe out slowly through their mouth, feeling the bottom hand lower back down.
- To encourage a slow exhale, you can ask your child to pretend to blow out candles, hold their hand over their mouth to feel their breath or even to make a noise with their exhale.
- After taking several deep belly breaths, ask your child how they feel and if they notice any difference.
If your child's hand on their chest is the only hand moving up and down as they breathe, encourage them to focus on moving the air deeper into their belly. Shallow chest breathing is more associated with anxious breathing.
As your child is learning belly breathing, it may help to have them lie down on their back during the breathing exercise. Instead of hands, you can place an object such as a small stuffed animal or book on their belly and have them attempt to make the object go up and down as they breathe.
Other tips for belly breathing for kids
Practice when your child is calm
One of the most important things to keep in mind when teaching belly breathing is to practice when your child is calm. By practicing when a child feels good, they will be equipped to use this tool in moments of stress or anxiety. Richardson recommends practicing at night before bed and says this can turn into a nighttime routine that can help your child fall asleep, whether they are anxious or not.
Deep breathing is a valuable tool for children of all ages. While young children, such as toddlers, may have a hard time grasping the concept of belly breathing, parents can start by teaching them to slow down their breaths when they feel upset or angry. Elementary school-aged children will be more prepared to learn the basics of belly breathing.
When your child is practicing belly breathing, encourage them to count to three when inhaling, take a slight pause and then exhale for a count of four. Depending on your child's age or breathing ability, they may be able to do longer counts. The actual length of the inhale and exhale is not as important as slowing their breathing and focusing their attention on this task.
Adapt to what works best for your child
Parents can see what works best for their child when teaching and practicing breathing exercises. There is no pressure to practice deep breathing in one exact or right way. "Do what makes your child feel the most comfortable, because that is the goal," encourages Richardson. "The more comfortable your child feels with a breathing exercise, the more likely they are to use that technique when they need it most."
Learn more about stress and anxiety management
Stress can present in many different ways and can impact a child's health. See tips for identifying and managing stress in children and teens, and learn more about our comprehensive Pediatric Psychiatry and Psychology services to support children's mental health.
You can also access emotional care and support from the comfort of your home with Virtual Visit Behavioral Health. With a behavioral health care appointment, you can speak to a board-certified psychiatrist or licensed therapist using video technology. Learn more about Virtual Visit Behavioral Health.
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