Seconds after birth a baby begins taking in its own oxygen, transitioning from foetus to newborn via an incredible cascade of biological processes, and begins the lifelong lesson of learning to breathe.
How we’re breathing - fast, slow, deep, shallow etc. - is an indicator of our current state (both physical and mental). Subtle changes in breathing can indicate the system is beginning to unbalance, while significant breathing changes indicate that there has been a larger disruption to the system. Therefore, when we become more aware of our breathing patterns, we become more aware of what’s happening within us.
The beauty & power of our breath is that it can be both an unconscious process and a conscious act, meaning that we can not only become aware of our breathing in a given state, but we can also take control of our breathing to change our state.
As adults, through our life experiences, we develop awareness of how we feel physically and mentally and we learn to interpret what those feelings mean. This bidirectional relationship is no different in children. What is different however, is that in children, the awareness of what they feel and what that feeling means is either lacking or less accurate.
That’s why breathing exercises can be incredibly helpful for children.
Breathing exercises are a fantastic way to empower children of all ages to self-regulate. They can help with increasing focus & concentration, regulating strong emotions, responding better to their environment, improving sleep and boosting their overall mental wellbeing. There are also incredible physical health benefits to children learning to breathe better including managing respiratory conditions like asthma and lowering their likelihood of needing corrective dentistry.
5 Tips To Help Kids Breathe Better
I’ve been a breathwork coach & educator since 2019, however I’m not a parent and my primary audience isn’t children. So, I reached out to some excellent breathworkers who are parents and/or who I think do incredible work teaching children. Note: responses have been edited slightly for clarity & brevity.
Courtesy of Carissa Menard, MS, CCLS from ABC Breathworks for Kids
The most important thing for a parent to understand when teaching their child breathwork is to not view it as a tool, and instead help your child view breathwork as a practice before they can begin using it as a tool. Tools are often viewed as mechanisms to fix something, such as stopping a tantrum or decreasing your child's expression of emotion. However, children really need to learn how to use their breath to support their body when they are regulated and calm before they are capable and willing to use their breath to support their body during a tantrum or meltdown.
When a child is dysregulated, they are simply seeking connection and safety, and telling a child to "take a deep breath" is not providing either of those. If breathwork is used as a tool that a child does not feel connected to, they will not feel safe using it.
Start a breathwork practice with your child so they can learn how to become connected to their breath and it becomes a space of safety for them, and then it can be utilised as a tool later when safety and connection are desperately needed.
Favourite Breathing Exercises
Young Children: Stuffed Animal Breaths. Resting a stuffed animal on a child's belly helps them to visually see how their diaphragm and belly participates with their breath. It is a concrete way for adults to teach children how to do proper belly breaths by teaching a child how to help the stuffed animal to rise on an inhale and fall on an exhale.
Teens: Box Breathing. This technique can be done anywhere and wherever needed. They can slyly draw a box on their notepad during class while doing it, or use their finger to trace a box on their thigh while sitting and talking to friends, or visualise it in their head when trying to fall asleep. It is easy, simple, evidence-based, and can be hidden from others if needed.
All Ages: Belly-to-Belly Breath with an adult. To start, an adult will sit facing their child and have their child wrap their legs around the adult's waist so both bellies are touching, and then wrap your arms around each other in a big hug. Prompt the child to notice how your bellies push together as you breathe in and come apart as you breathe out. This is another concrete and simple way to teach children how to breathe through their belly appropriately while also connecting to a caregiver which increases coregulation and oxytocin.
Courtesy of Nick Heath, Ph.D. from The Breathing Diabetic
My top tip for parents trying to help their children breathe better is to encourage nasal breathing during the day and night. This is one of the most important things we can do to help them breathe better as children and adults. With my 4 year old daughter I encourage it through verbal positive reinforcement, occasionally mentioning its benefits and, most of all, by personal example.
Favourite Breathing Exercises
I have three favourite techniques:
Breath counting, where we count each breath we take up to 5
“Thanksgiving Breath.” I got it from a book, but you just breathe and say, “Isn’t this great? I have an abundance of the most valuable resource on the planet, and I don’t even have to work that hard to get it.” (The "resource" referring to oxygen.) Once she memorised the lines, she started requesting this one almost every night (which brings me a tremendous amount of joy, too).
The last one is to let her teach me a breathing exercise. This is the most fun for her. Usually, it’s just something silly, but becoming the teacher makes her enjoy it more (and laugh a lot).
Courtesy of David Bilder, President of Physiology First University
Tie improved breathing to goals the child holds closest to heart. Breathing is a skill refined through practice. The motivation to practise breath awareness must be intrinsic to be maximally effective. Ask your child what they are most motivated by at the moment and build a narrative that ties improved breathing to this goal.
Favourite Breathing Exercise
For older children I like to use the Physiological Sigh paired with Heart Rate Monitoring. The physiological sigh involves a double inhale, followed by a single exhale, popularised by neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman.
Inhale through the nose
Now, inhale just a bit more
Exhale slowly and softly through the mouth
Using a heart rate monitor to demonstrate the decrease in heart rate, especially after exercise or moments when heart rate is elevated, can be extremely helpful in gaining “buy-in” from youth while teaching them to navigate their physiology.
Courtesy of Sue Mounsey from Middle Balance
I couldn't restrict myself to only one tip, so here are my recommendations:
Modelling via our own practice to set the tone and help children discover that they can influence their bodies and mind with their breath and experience the benefits of self-regulation. Better breathing can be done anywhere, anytime. Creatively guiding children and adolescents to discover the wonder within is a gift that lasts a lifetime.
Using imagination and creativity to bring conscious breathing into daily activities teaches children to become familiar with both the mechanics of breathing and sensations that are experienced during different states.
Creating opportunities for practice around pre-existing routines and rituals - the options are bountiful! Google the below exercises for explanations:
Ringing a bell to signal everyone to stop and notice their breathing
Have younger children rock a teddy bear on their belly using their breath, after a bedtime story
Snake breath after brushing teeth in the morning
Finger count breathing on the way to school
Smiling breath in the garden or on the lounge room floor
For reluctant adolescents, a suitable app, book, TED talk or documentary may be helpful to engage them.
Favourite Breathing Exercise
One of my favourite breathing techniques for children is Candle Breath! This can be done at any time and is useful to help children settle down and feel calmer. The instructions are super easy to follow, even for very young children. Here's a video explanation
Ask the child to wriggle into a comfy position, sit up tall with hands resting in lap
Ask them to imagine you are holding a candle (you can hold up one finger to symbolise a candle if you wish)
Take a long breath in through your nose and slowly blow the air out through pursed lips towards your candle
Give the cues “Let’s make the candle flame wiggle… it isn’t time to blow it out yet!" and “Long breath in, slow breath out”
Finish by having them blow the candle out
Courtesy of Leah Scott from Wild Things Anatomy
Create 1 minute morning and bedtime breathing 'habits', increasing the duration and refining the techniques as they get older.
Create a dedicated breathing space in the house (perhaps in a corner of their bedroom), and reinforce these habits through shared experiences.
For young learners observation, patterns and consistency are key.
Favourite Breathing Exercises
For young children, as part of their breathing 'habits', I recommend 1 minute of 3 second box breathing (3 second inhale, 3 second hold, 3 second exhale, 3 second hold, repeat).
For teenagers, introduce a more refined approach with a slow, deep breathing pattern of ten breaths, followed by short timed exhale breath hold and an inhale recovery breath (this is a toned down style of the Wim Hof Method breathing technique). This technique is safe and will influence their mental and physical wellbeing, aiding in stress management, euphoria and calmness and clarity.
A big thank you to my fellow breathwork educators for providing these tips and techniques. If you’d like to learn more ways to help you help your children please reach out to any of us directly.
You can find more resources including accounts to follow, books & more at My Top Breathwork Resources for Parents page
Interested in learning how I can help you and work together with your child to improve their breathing? Contact me
Certain breathing techniques may not be suitable for those with serious medical conditions or unsuited to children of certain ages. Those with very young children or those with specific health concerns or any serious medical issues should consult a healthcare professional before commencing any exercises.