How does breathing impact self-regulation?

Breathing is a subconscious action, but when we consciously control how we breathe, it can impact our overall state of arousal, as well as our ability to learn, sleep, and self-regulate. When our bodies feel stressed, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, and we experience a stress response called “Fight, Flight, or Freeze.” During this response, the rise in stress hormones causes your heart rate and blood pressure to increase, while you may feel tense with a heightened sense of what is going on around you. Many children who have difficulty processing sensory information are often in a state of “Fight, Flight, or Freeze,” and may experience difficulties with self-regulation, attention, and learning abilities. 

 Consciously taking deep breaths is a simple strategy to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which moves the body from a stressed state to a relaxed state. Building deep breathing into your child’s routine can help them to maintain a level of calm alertness throughout their day and have beneficial effects on self-regulation, sleep, attention, and learning.  Engaging in deep breathing techniques prior to activities that may be distressing or challenging to your child (ex: homework, mealtime with non-preferred foods, sports practice or games) may allow your child to engage in these activities with an improved ability to maintain calm. Taking long and slow breaths out is most effective!

 Activities to facilitate deep breathing:

  • Blow up a balloon.
  • Blow bubbles.
  • Blow a bubble mountain: Fill a large bowl with a small amount of water and soap. Use a straw to blow bubbles in the bowl.
  • Straw races: Use straws to blow cotton balls, pom poms, or other light objects across the table. 
  • Straw pick up: Suck in through a straw to pick up and move objects. This activity can be done to sort objects or to complete a task, like an art project. Try picking up M&Ms, pieces of tissue paper, or large cotton balls!
  • Belly breaths: Have your child lay on their back and place a preferred stuffed animal or small toy on their stomach. Watch the toy move up when they take a big breath in, and down when they take a big breath out.