Breathing Exercises for Sensory Defensive Kids
This article provides helpful breathing exercises for children that struggle with sensory defensiveness, anxiety, panic attacks and hyperventilation. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.
Over the years, as an advocate for children with learning disabilities and sensory issues, I have heard many stories from parents about what works and what doesn’t for their child. To help and direct children that struggle with sensory disorders we need to understand what happens when a child is in meltdown mode. Children with sensory processing issues have brains that quickly move into the “flight or fight” response when they are overstimulated, not getting what they need, or have undue stress in their immediate environment.
When these kids are in this state of mind, they cannot turn on their executive functioning that directs higher thinking and controlled behavior. Executive function is needed to reign in the child’s impulsivity and it is the foundation for organizing their thoughts and handling frustration and stress adequately. Many times, a child with sensory issues is propelled into a state of fear and panic. This is why a meltdown, panic attack and hyperventilation is common with sensory defensive kids.
So what does work for sensory kids? To improve your child’s sensory defensiveness to outside stimulation, they must learn to self-regulate and become aware of what their own body needs to calm the anxiousness and fight or flight response. Children must listen to what their body is telling them (for example, “Am I tired?” “Am I Frustrated?” “Am I tense?”). Teaching children how to manage and alter their mood and behavior with an appropriate action can prevent poor behavior, especially in the classroom, and it can calm symptoms before they become unmanageable for the child.
One of the best methods and strategies for calming sensory defensiveness is breath control. Breath control is one of the quickest and easiest ways to get a child back to using their executive function skills.
Breath Control for Sensory Defensiveness and Anxiety
In Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to Do If You Are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World, it describes the following benefits of deep breathing exercises:
“Breath control is the ultimate means of body control and becoming present in the moment. If you do deep breathing for 3 to 10 minutes a day, twice a day, you will strengthen the muscles that support breathing and gradually enhance their flexibility and resilience. This will reset the rhythm and rate of your breathing, and with regular deep-breathing practice, increase your lung capacity to enable you to breathe more deeply.
Breath control also allows the child to regulate their outward breathing as well as their inward breathing. It can be just as important for the child because it prevents large amounts of carbon dioxide to build up when the child’s breath is short and delayed. Too much carbon dioxide can be harmful for children and can even cause dizziness and more panic.
So what are some breathing exercises that work for children and which ones will help with anxiety, panic attacks and overstimulation? Here are a few of our tried and true breathing practices that we recommend.
Belly Breathing (Diaphragmatic Breathing)
I remember many years ago when the mother of a friend explained belly breathing to me. They had a new baby at their house and my friend and I were watching her sleep. The mother drew our attention to the baby’s belly going up and down, and pointed out that those deep breaths were the baby’s natural belly breathing sequence. She said most adults don’t breathe deep enough like babies do, which is why we tend to be more stressed and anxious. We also tend to breathe through our chest instead of our abdomen, which can prevent air to our lungs. I have always remembered her advice, especially when I am anxious. If I’m ever anxious or stressed, I focus on deeper breaths and concentrate to pull the air down into my belly.
These types of deep breaths can benefit your child in the following ways:
- Calms the body
- Relieves pain
- Detoxifies the body
- Improves posture (important for gross motor skills and core muscle)
- Increases blood flow
When your child is stressed, anxious or experiences sensory defensiveness, you can try a few simple steps to help your child self-regulate their breathing. Use the following steps to begin deep breathing exercises:
- Instruct your child to place one hand on their belly, and the other hand on their chest (It is most comfortable to lay down with knees bent).
- Direct your child to take a deep breath in through their nose.
- As they breathe in, tell them to let their belly push their hand up while their chest is still.
- Hold the deep breath for three seconds.
- Teach your child to breathe out slowly and purse their lips as they exhale.
- While exhaling, encourage your child to feel their hand on their belly go down.
Extra Tip: Another exercise you can do with your child is breathing in unison when they are belly-breathing. Lie or sit side-by-side with your child and practice the deep breathing exercises with them. This activity can help immensely, as his or her breath will start to mimic your own. It’s also a wonderful bonding and connecting exercise for mother and child.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Another style of breathing exercise that calms a sensory defensive and anxious child is Alternate Nostril Breathing (ANB). This method helps the child focus on better body awareness, calms and centers the mind, harmonizes the right and left hemispheres of the brain for learning, and balances your child’s energy channels. Research suggests that there is an association between the side of your nose that you breathe with dominantly and the cerebral hemisphere that is more active. Scientists have hypothesized that left-nostril dominance activates the parasympathetic nervous system with a focus on relaxation and the right-nostril dominance elicits the sympathetic nervous system showing arousal signs, which regulates your child’s levels of stress, panic, heartbeat and adrenaline. This exercise can enhance the child’s ability to focus on shutting out the unwanted sensations including overstimulation and anxious thoughts.
Here are the steps to follow for better ANB:
- Ask your child to close their right nostril with their right thumb, breathing out completely through the left side of the nose.
- Inhale very slowly through the left nostril.
- Now, close the left nostril with left thumb (while the right nostril is still closed with the right thumb) and hold the air they inhaled for a few seconds.
- Remove the thumb from right nostril and exhale slowly.
- Inhale through the right side of the nose.
- Repeat cycle for up to 20 cycles and keep practicing.
4-7-8 Breathing Exercise
For this exercise, have your child sit up straight and instruct them to place the tip of their tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind their upper teeth. As your child exhales through their mouth during the exercise, they will purse their lips slightly, releasing the air while keeping their tongue just behind their teeth. Help your child do the following steps to complete the exercise:
- Exhale completely through your mouth making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to the count of four.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds.
- Exhale completely through your mouth using a whoosh sound while counting to eight in your head.
- Repeat the exercises a total of four times.
Tips to Remember
Belly breathing and other breathing exercises actually decrease the child’s heart rate and triggers a relaxation response. The child’s “flight or fight” reaction to sensory defensiveness or other factors like stress or anxiety cannot occur while deep breathing is being exercised.
When a child’s body switches into “flight or fight” mode, they engage in shallow breathing so you can tell when they experience sensory defensiveness, anxiety or panic attacks. If your child is prone to having these types of reactions, daily breathing exercises are needed to not only calm the anxiety and sensory issues, but it will teach the child to self-regulate on their own and understand what it feels like in a calmed state.
If you are a parent that works with sensory sensitive children on a daily basis, you deserve some de-stressing as well. Try the breathing activities together before bedtime to help both you and your child relax and sleep better.
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning disabilities achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs