Fidget Fingers

Is your child the one who always leaps up and knocks things over, appears not to hear, or runs off when you are telling a story? A person who lacks concentration on the situation at hand may have a breathing problem.

Watch healthy babies sleeping, feeding and concentrating on picking up the next toy. And while you are watching them, notice how they breathe. Nine times out of ten they will be breathing through their nose. This is because it is as natural for us to breathe through our nose, as it is to blink when we look at a bright light.

Now observe a child who has an abnormally short attention span, who is a 'fidget fingers', or who seems to never be able to remember a thing. How does this child breathe most of the time, through the nose or is it through the mouth?

In spite of mouth breathing being an abnormal way to breathe under most circumstances, many people breathe like this, and it causes a wide range of problems that not only includes a short attention span. If your child has needed dental braces, has asthma, allergies, or snores, does not sleep soundly, or has difficulty learning, then mouth-breathing may be part of the problem.

Why would a child breathe abnormally?

Usually the breathing pattern increases and decreases in line with an increasing and decreasing level of metabolism. For example, when a child runs, the metabolism increases and so does the breathing. During sleep, the metabolism is much lower, and so the breathing also drops, which is reflected by quiet and gentle breathing through the nose.

When a person is stressed, the body automatically sets off a range of reactions, such as a rush of adrenaline, increased heartbeat and breathing, reduced digestive activity and a suppressed immune system. This is called the 'fight or flight response', and the types of stress that our 'hunter-gatherer' ancestors mostly faced required this set of reactions to escape or to defend themselves. So while these reactions are excellent when faced by a charging bear, they are not a lot of use when you don't know the answer to a question your teacher just asked, or you have just eaten something that your body doesn't like. This is because you cannot run from or physically fight these situations.

When people are faced by frequent stressful situations that do not require a lot of physical activity, the respiratory centre in the brain becomes accustomed to an increased breathing pattern, almost all of the time. This is reflected by deep or noisy breathing when sleeping, rapid breathing, or breathing through the mouth when sitting in a chair, or perhaps just sighing and yawning more than usual.
Deep breathing has been given a good rap over the years, yet there is no science to back up this belief. In fact, breathing more air than is needed for metabolism is stressful because counter-intuitively, less oxygen is delivered to tissue cells when you breathe too much air. This problem was first discovered by a Danish scientist called Christian Bohr more than a hundred years ago, and is called the Bohr Effect.

A lot of what we do automatically becomes habitual, and so if you breathe too much for a lengthy period, due to hidden stress in your life, then the breathing pattern does not return to normal even when the perceived danger is over, but instead it stays high.

Breathing too much air each minute causes a lack of carbon dioxide within the body, and this makes the nervous system become agitated, resulting in symptoms such as twitching muscles, restless legs, or feelings of anxiety and panic.

Another part of the fight or flight response is to reduce blood flow to the brain because it doesn't take a lot of thought to run like crazy, punch someone, or to yank your hand out of a stream of hot water. Instead, it makes more sense to have lots of blood flowing to arms and legs that allow us to move fast with strength.
It's hard to imagine adults sitting quietly and concentrating on learning when they are under stress. Children who are much more vulnerable, and who have not yet learned much about self-control find it even harder, so it is no wonder that kids who breathe too much are less likely to keep still and find learning easy.

What can be done about breathing badly?

Because the respiratory centre can become accustomed to different patterns of breathing, it is possible to retrain the centre to breathe at a more normal pattern. As a parent, you would do this in the same way that you teach your child to keep their elbows off the table while eating: with patience and by bringing attention to the matter. The first step towards this goal is to get the child to breathe through their nose whenever they are able to. Once you start habitually breathing through your nose, you are far more likely to continue doing it, and this is a good step towards normal breathing.

See our Mouth Breathing Children blog to learn the special Buteyko 'nose clearing exercise'.

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