Learn how to easily teach belly breathing to kids from ages 2 through teens. Belly or diaphragmatic breathing has been proven to reduce stress, overwhelm, and anxiety!
Just take a deep breath.
Have you ever said that to your child? Maybe when they’re running wild? Or, when they’re so worried they look like they’re about to have a panic attack?
Or, when they’re angry, and their behavior is spinning out of control.
Kids often become annoyed at this instruction and just end up ignoring it. Because sometimes a deep breath isn’t that helpful – usually because it’s not a belly breath. We don’t tend to take breaths into our belly, but it’s proven that that’s what really calms a child down.
What is Belly Breathing
Belly breathing is a helpful tool to help any child, or adult for that matter, calm down quickly. But, belly breathing is very different than regular breathing, which is why we need to teach kids how to do it. And, it’s important that we keep that simple. I’ll show you how to do that shortly.
Typically when we take a breath, we breathe into our lungs.
If it’s a really big breath, you’ll see your chest rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale.
A belly breath is deeply inhaling and allowing the breath to fill your belly instead of just your lungs. When you take a big belly breath, you’ll see your belly, not your chest, rise and then fall as your exhale.
The technical term for belly breathing is diaphragmatic breathing because when you take this deep breath, your diaphragm (the muscle at the top of your belly) contracts. As a result, you need to take less breaths because you’re breathing deeply.
Why is Belly Breathing Helpful for Kids?
Let me dork out on the science here, because it will be helpful for explaining to your child why they should take a deep breath.
When your child takes a deep belly breath, they:
- Take less breaths in a minute, decreasing their respiratory rate
- Maximize blood flow
- Lower cortisol levels (cortisol is the stress hormone)
- Release endorphins as their heart rate and breath comes into sync (endorphins are feel good hormones).
A variety of studies have shown that belly or diaphragmatic breathing can reduce stress, improve mood, and even attention.
It’s important that you communicate these benefits to your child as I already mentioned. This helps them understand why they should take a deep breath and how to take one that gives them the most benefit.
Tailor how you tell your child about why they should belly breathe based on their age. For younger kids, you can say something like:
“When you fill up your belly with air, your brain sends special chemicals all throughout your body to help calm it down. Taking a belly breath is like sending a message to your brain that you need some help right now.”
Who Should Belly Breathe?
At this point, I hope you’re thinking that all kids (and adults) can benefit from belly breathing. Because that’s 100% true. But, there are some groups of kids that struggle with calming down on a regular basis. For example, kids with:
For these kids, belly breathing can be a powerful strategy to teach them, that can lead to life changing effects if used on a regular basis.
How to Teach Your Child to Belly Breathe
Telling your child to take a deep breath into their belly is a little abstract. If your child is confused, they may get frustrated and give up. I’m showing you 2 of my favorite ways to teach kids how to belly breathe so they can master it in a few minutes.
Way #1: Standing with Hand on Belly
- Have your child stand up in front of you.
- Show them how to place one hand flat on their belly.
- Tell them to take the biggest deep breath they can, all the way into their belly and see if they can get their belly to push their hand up.
If their hand doesn’t move the first time, be positive, and say something like, “Oh, that was close. This time, try to imagine the air filling up your whole belly.” Continue attempts, until you see they’ve taken that deep belly breath.
Once, they figured out how to breath into their belly, also encourage them to blow all of their breath back out so that their belly shrinks back down.
Repeat for 3 to 4 cycles.
Way #2: Laying flat on back with a toy resting on their belly
- Have your child lay down flat on their back, on a sturdy surface.
- Place a small toy on their belly (stuffed animal, matchbox car, rubber duckie. etc.)
- Tell them to take a deep breath all the way into their belly, filling it up as much as possible.
- Ask them to watch for their toy to rise up on their belly. If they do, they’ve taken a belly breath!
Again, in the moment, this may take several attempts. That’s okay! The younger your child is the more time they’ll need to learn how to do this. Children as young as 2 years old are capable of learning how to belly breathe.
Practice Belly Breathing with Your Kid
To get the most benefit out of belly breathing, it will be helpful to practice it regularly with your child. And, not just when they’re in distress or hyper. They need to have this skill in their repertoire and readily know how to use it.
If you remind them to take a belly breathe as they start to spiral out of control in the middle of the grocery store, they may not have the practice to use it in heightened situation.
Think about a time your child is calm to have them regularly practice belly breathing. That could be while you’re driving in the car. Or, when they take a bath. They’ll be able to watch their belly rise and fall easily while bathing. If you can tie it to a routine, you’ll get in the habit of practicing on a regular basis.
And, those studies I mentioned earlier?
They show evidence that just practicing deep diaphragmatic breathing on a regular basis reduces overall stress and worry. That means even if your child isn’t in need of a belly breath at the particular moment your practicing it, it will still help them calm in general.
Of course, all this practice is for those times when they need a tool to immediately calm down. With all your practice, they’ll be able to learn how to take that belly breath even when they’re wild or their anxiety is spilling over.
Belly Breathing for Kids May Help Them Fall Asleep
If your child has a hard time falling asleep, belly breathing can help them fall asleep faster. As their heart rate and breathing fall into place, and those endorphins flood their whole body, they will relax. Then, they drift off to la-la land.
If you don’t believe me, try it yourself!
Plus, you can choose this time of getting ready for bed as your belly breathing practice time. It’s a win win.
Sensory Activities to Helps Kids Calm (Free Printable)
Sensory activities are another powerful tool that can help kids calm down! Want to grab a free list of my favorite ideas as a mom and occupational therapist? Awesome, just click the link below and I’ll send 25 sensory activities right to your inbox.
More Ideas for Calming Kids
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 16 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.