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The Art of Belly Breathing

In my work as a school based consultant, I did a lot of work around emotion regulation skills. One of the most important and useful strategies for coping with emotion regulation and stress is deep breathing. With children, I like to call it belly breathing. 

Belly breathing is a pretty simple thing to do and parents can easily practice with their child. It’s a great skill to teach and it’s also a sweet oppprtunity to connect in a loving way with your child. 

No matter how fancy or basic you get, the goal is to inhale deeply in through your nose and then exhale fully out through your mouth. It should feel like you’re filling your belly with air when you breathe in through your nose. I like to call it a belly breath because it feels like your belly is filling with air. Sometimes we tend to lengthen our torso when we take a deep breath but we actually want to be able to feel our belly fill and expand as you breath in through your nose then when you exhale, your belly deflates. 

For a more scientific explaination of what is happening and why it helps, you can read more from Harvard Here

My very favorite way to teach belly breathing involves a stuffed animal or favorite small object and a little imagination. Have your child think of something delicious they want to smell. I’ve heard this range from a brownie to a princess tiara (great opportunity to support your child’s imagination here! 🤣). Have your child lay down on their back and place their stuffed animal right in their belly. Then your child will practice “smelling” and “blowing”. Smell the yummy thing in through the nose and blow out through the mouth like blowing a bubble or blowing out a birthday candle. 

Have fun with it, too! Join in with your child—share your favorite smell and practice with them. This is a chance to be playful and fun while also being calm and peaceful. Make direct eye contact and use gentle touches with your child while speaking softly and calmly. Your tone and demeanor will help your child understand how to balance fun with calm. 

Direct your child to do these 4 steps (you can do them as they do):

  1. Hold the stuffed animal/small object on your belly

  2. Let your body feel relaxed like you’re taking a nap

  3. Tell them to think of their yummy thing you smell it really deeply through their nose (you can ask, “do you feel your belly filling up?” Or say “ooh I see your belly filling up!”

  4. Tell them blow all the air out like you’re blowing out a candle on a birthday cake 

Three times is the magic amount. I really encourage parents to do this alongside their child. Parents modeling this skill is really helpful and will teach your child much more than them doing it on their own. 

Belly breathing is wonderful as a loving ritual at bedtime or in the mornings and also helpful in times of emotional dysregulation. As helpful as belly breathing can be to help your child calm down after emotional upset (or to prevent an emotional upset if you can do it in time!), it’s very important to teach your child how to do it in times of peace and calm. At bedtime, in the car, when reading or sitting together are all nice times to practice. The learning needs to happen in times of regulation and connection.

After some time to practice and master the technique, you can turn to belly breathing as a tool in times of emotional dyregulation. Remember that children may not be able to hear you and respond in the heat of their turmoil but as they begin to calm down with your calm presence, gently remind them or ask them, “is this a good time to smell those yummy brownies? Let’s try a nice big belly breath to help your body”.  

Happy belly breathing! 

#deepbreathing #copingskills #emotionalresilience #parenting #earlychildhood