Inhale, Exhale, Repeat

Miriam McCaleb explains why paying attention to your breathing is important.

Inhale, exhale. Repeat. If we didn’t, we would soon die. So how is it that so many of us spend most of our lives doing a mediocre job of breathing? There’s a real difference between unconscious breathing and mindful, conscious breathing. To help get you in the mood for making the effort to breathe more consciously, consider the benefits of actively breathing. We know that slow, deep breaths can help calm the nervous system. It really does lower blood pressure. It feeds cells more effectively – some would say this can slow down the aging process. (My wrinkles love the sound of that.) It’s also helpful to understand the role that deep breaths play in switching off the stress-response system. Our brains are linked to our heart, lungs, and stomach by a long connector called the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve takes messages of stress generated by our brain all the way from the brainstem to the heart (“Beat a little faster!”), to the lungs (“Breathe more shallowly!”), and to the stomach (“We’re too stressed to digest food right now!”). This explains that sensation of butterflies in your tummy. Also, the tendency to need a poo when we’re nervous!

These reactions in the body send a message back up the vagus nerve to the brainstem, as if to say, “You were right. We are stressed!” And back down the vagus nerve go the messages of stress, reinforcing the reactions of heart, lungs, and stomach. Left unchecked, those stress messages go around and around. A stress cycle. Unless: Something is done to override them. In an adult, or an older child with reasonable control over their responses, it is possible to interrupt that stress cycle simply by taking some long, slow breaths. Remember when your Nana told you to take a deep breath, perhaps to count to 10, in the middle of anxiety or agitation? She was right. It’s a good idea. This is about exercising higher brain function and allowing the cortex to use its position as regulator to command the lungs to move slowly and deeply. This simple act causes the vagus nerve to bring a new message to the brainstem: “Actually, things can’t be too stressful. We’re clearly not running from a sabre-toothed tiger. We have the time to breathe slowly and deeply.”

Infants don’t have the luxury of a well-formed cortex to help with regulation. An upset baby whose system is responding to stress only has one hope forgetting the vagus nerve to interrupt the stress messages powering through her body. The loving arms of a significant adult do much for regulation, as do the calm breaths of a regulated adult. For the good of our kids as well as ourselves, let’s think about how to make space in our busy lives to practise conscious breathing. It’s helpful to use existing daily tasks as a cue to breathe mindfully: Perhaps waiting for emails to load is a reminder to sit tall and evenly, to think about making inhalation and exhalation the same length. Or walking to the washing line can be a moving meditation: Imagine in breaths travelling from the earth up to your skull, and the exhale pushing the old air back down to the ground. We know that young babies will respond to the quality of a parent’s breath: If the adult holding a baby does so with arms that are rigid with stress and breathing that’s made shallow by agitation, it should be no great surprise to us that Baby will work to match the parent’s state.

They strive to get their physiology in line. The more tricks a parent knows for keeping cool and calm, the more likely it is that Baby will try to match that, instead. So it’s a really good idea to have a couple of speedy relaxation breath techniques up your parental sleeve. It’s also wise to practise them in times of calm so you’ll be well-rehearsed in the midst of a baby-wail or when older children are wringing out your last little bit of patience. From toddlerhood, we can start teaching children how to use big breaths as part of their repertoire for calming down. They’re likely to still need our help, though, as their systems of re-regulation are immature and need coaching, preferably from calm(ish) adults who love them very much.

For starters, check that you can remember how to take a big, full belly breath, like you used to when you were little. Go ahead and put your hand under your belly button and see if you can get your hand to move out (or up, if you’re lying down) when you breathe in, and to move in (or down, if you’re still horizontal) when you exhale. Too many of us have been distracted by the temptation to aim for a flat abdomen at all costs, keeping our breath in our chests and missing the biggest bit of our lungs. They’re kind of pear-shaped, our lungs, so the more we can recruit the big, bottom section, the more oxygen we get on board. This simple act of knowing how to take a belly breath will enrich your family life more than you can imagine. Practise this, so that when you excuse yourself from intense family scenes to step out on the front porch and take 10 big, deep breaths, your body will recognise this as a signal to calm down. Your cortex will reactivate, allowing the wisest bit of your brain to be in charge. Remember, your cortex is the home of long-term planning, logic, and the filter to your emotions. This is like the home of all the learning you’ve done about parenting and life. During times of stress – like when your kids are making you particularly bonkers, or your spouse is doing your head in, or even if you can’t find your car keys – we are more likely to have our calm and logical cortexes hijacked by the emotional centre of our brains. Something as simple as conscious breath can bring your best self back. Inhale, exhale. Repeat.

A word about mouth-breathing

Does your child mouth-breathe? Does he or she have dry lips, crowded teeth, snore, sleep with an open mouth, get a lot of upper respiratory infections, or have terrible breath? When your body can’t get enough oxygen by breathing through your nose, it automatically resorts to the only other thing it can do to supply your body with the oxygen it needs – your mouth. Mouth-breathing, however, can lead to many oral health problems:

  • Mouth-breathing can dry out the mouth, decreasing saliva production. Saliva is important for neutralising acid and helping wash away bacteria. If your child is a mouthbreather, they have a higher chance of tooth decay and cavity development.
  • A dry mouth leads to bad breath (halitosis) and gum disease.
  • Mouth-breathing can also lead to poor sleep, lower oxygen concentration in the blood, and facial deformities caused by poor posture.

Mouth-breathing is a serious problem if left untreated. If your child is a mouth-breather, you should take him or her to a dentist or orthodontist for treatment as soon as possible, as it will have lifelong negative effects.

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