The nervous system is the control center of our body and mind. Children who have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may already be experiencing “interference” or “overload” at the level of the nervous system and need help modulating moods, emotions and behavior.
Breath – A Direct Link to the Nervous System
While the nervous system operates autonomously, there is a tool we have at our disposal to effect it – the breath. The breath is our direct link to our nervous system. It’s deceptively simple and highly effective.
Our autonomic nervous system is in charge of regulating so many functions we don’t even have to think about: digestion, heart rate, hormone release and distribution – the list goes on and on. The breath operates across both the sensory motor part of the nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. So it can run on its own, or we can intervene to influence our whole system.
A Simple Exercise to Help Children Self-Regulate
- The first phase is observation. Set a timer or a metronome – something that has an audible ticking sound to mark time. (Of course, there’s an “app” for that.)
- Watch your child breathe. Count out loud how many ticks it takes to inhale and how many ticks it takes to exhale. The child is not shaping his or her breath, just letting it do its own thing while you count. (You can even do this part on the sly.)
Observing Meaning Behind Breath
This gives a good picture of what is happening in your child’s mind and body. The breath is a doorway into the nervous system. You can see what the nervous system is up to by watching the breath. You can also affect the nervous system by modulating the breath. If the inhale is a higher count, that is an indication of sympathetic arousal – the stress response. If the exhale is longer than inhale, that means the parasympathetic is running the show and the body is in a state of relaxation. In good health, our exhale will always be naturally longer than inhale unless we are doing something strenuous, exciting, stressful or scary.
The second phase is modulation. You are looking for a ratio of inhale/exhale that is 1:1.5 or 1:2. You can use the ticking sound to create this ratio.
- Count out loud your child’s first inhale. If it is 3, count the exhale to 5 or 6. If it is 4, count the exhale to 6 or 8.
- Make it a game and invite your child to follow your count as if the ticks are the tracks on a roller coaster, or ice picks digging in on a mountain climb. You can also use the concept of an elevator. “How many floors does your in breath go up to? How many floors does your out breath go down to?” You can also simply trace your finger in an up motion and then down like a musical conductor, or a wizard with a wand. Your child will think of something very creative – and then you can share it in a comment on this blog post!
- Make sure this exploration doesn’t become stressful or strenuous for your child. The count may be 4 or 5 on inhale and 2 on exhale, especially if he or she has asthma. Keep it playful and take a break if it seems frustrating for your child. You don’t need to get this ratio on the first try. Explore casually now and again and over time both you and your child will gain awareness – the key to self-mastery.
- After some time, your child can learn to count mentally inside for him or herself. It can be very empowering for a child to be given such a simple tool that is so effective.
Just a few minutes of Tick-Tock Breathing will reset the nervous system and help your child feel balanced and focused. Yoga is a science, and this is just one more fun science experiment you and your child can try together. Over time, you can do it without the ticking sound anywhere, anytime to first tune in to the current level of arousal and then shift it as needed.