Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Put Your Lips Together and Blow

I recently started working with a little boy who has quite a routine established.   As soon as he enters my office, he starts zooming around from room to room, checking out every inch of space in the clinic.  His parents always become highly  embarrassed by this behavior and rebuke him sharply, but nothing can stop him.  If he is physically restrained, as soon as he is free, he is off again.

This child is functioning at a very primitive level.   What is driving his behavior is extreme sensory defensiveness.  Most of what comes into his personal space is interpreted by his nervous system as a threat.  He is looking for predators!  This is a child who will require a lot of sensory work to calm down the reptilian part of his brain, and convince it to stop alerting him that everything that crosses his path is threatening and dangerous.

Why is a child's nervous system wired like that?

One aspect of a child's functioning that is absolutely critical, but that often gets overlooked when a child is being evaluated, is the child's ability to breathe.  The reason that this is so important  is that breathing has a profound influence on not only our physical health, but our emotional and intellectual health as well.  Just as our breathing is affected by our inner state, our inner state can be affected by our breathing.

Many of the children I treat, including this boy, are rapid, shallow breathers.  When we are frightened, anxious or stressed, chemicals flood our systems and we begin to breathe rapidly, using only the very top portions of our lungs. This puts us quickly into a heightened awareness and a fight or flight state, as opposed to the slow, deep, relaxed, full breathing of someone who is sound asleep.

Even when we are not under attack, if our bodies are preventing us from breathing fully, we can be living in a chronic low level fight or flight response.  This predisposes us to scanning the environs for predators, alerting to everything and filtering out nothing, and prevents us from being able to focus on much outside of ourselves.  It doesn't put us in a good place for learning,  socializing, or exploring, and makes it challenging to regulate our alertness/arousal levels.

Poor breathing is a symptom of a variety of underlying causes.   For instance, the child could be chronically congested, due to allergies or sinus problems.  He could be living with asthma. In the children I treat, often it is because their trunk tone is low, their posture is poor, and so the diaphragm, and the muscles that serve to expand the ribs, are weak.  They often have breathing issues that are related to birth trauma.  If the baby does not take in its first full, deep breath directly after birth, such as in a C-section birth, it can negatively affect the baby's ability to breathe.

If you have an anxious, rapid, shallow breather on your hands, the thing to do is NOT to say, "Take a deep breath!"  The child already has enough trouble breathing in without someone interfering further!  The best way to help a child who breathes like this is to give him lots of toys that encourage him to purse his lips and exhale forcefully.  I use siren whistles, razzers, blow darts, kazoos, bubbles, party horns, and anything else I can find. You can also make great impromptu blow toys out of drinking straws and light objects such as cotton or ping-pong balls, wadded up paper, beans, and  tiddly winks.  You can stick a bunch of birthday candles into modeling clay or salt, light them, and have the child blow them out.

The reason this works better is because a deep, sustained, forceful exhale will automatically cause the next inhale to be fuller and deeper.

Try this:  Breathe in as big as you can.  What was that like?

Now:  Breathe out until your lungs are really empty, then notice the next breath as it rushes in.

What was that like?

The inhale after the forced exhale was much more relaxed, open, and expansive.  Our bodies know how to inhale beautifully.  Sometimes it's just a matter of clearing the path so that it can happen.

Try playing with bubbles, whistles, and blow toys for a few minutes every day with an anxious, restless child and see if it doesn't help him to be much, much calmer and happier in his body.


Catherine Vlasto said...

I did the breathing exercise and it works, you are right, much more relaxed the second time. We as parents can sometimes underestimate the importance of watching out for normal development of all of our children's body organs. The examples you gave for assisting to better breathing for children are very helpful.
Let any of your patients know that there is effective help using natural therapeutic grade essential oils for dealing with asthma and allergies! Thank you for your post!

Kara said...

Oh my goodness. When my son gets worked up about things, he asks me to help him breathe, which means help him take deep breaths so that he can calm himself down. Deep breaths work for him, but getting to that point is the hard part. I've been trying to show him how to do the intake, and didn't think about the exhale. I've been doing it wrong, for so long. Sheesh!

Thanks for sharing the tip, I'll give it a try.

Anonymous said...

gen gereb cd jumping jellybeans are great for respiration and fun.. look up her star fish song on you tube.. sing along and see how out of breath you are at the end! Early intervention kids love these songs during treatment sessions