Restlessness, feelings of anxiety, constipation, and difficulty sleeping are some common presentations that I see in children who come to my office. The underlying imbalance and unifying factor of these symptoms could be from an over-engagement of the sympathetic nervous system (or fight or flight system as it’s commonly called). Sometimes this happens when the body perceives stress, which could be from inadequate hydration, movement, sleep, or nutritional deficiencies to name a few. This means that the parasympathetic nervous system (or rest and digest system) might not be as active and optimally functioning as it could be in order to support healthy mood, digestion, and sleep.
I’ll highlight below some of my favourite ways to support and activate the parasympathetic nervous system in children.
- Breathing deeply is essential.From a young age, as we develop our muscles, bones, and fascia; our moods and feelings can start to shape the way we carry our bodies. Sometimes this translates as holding stress in our physical bodies with resulting tight muscles and posture imbalances if we are not taught how to express our feelings in a supportive and safe way. If the body starts to round or hunch forward, our ability to breathe deeply into our belly can be impacted. Stress felt in the body can often result in short, and shallow breaths that only reach the top of the lungs. When we encourage children to take long, slow breaths into their belly, it can signal to the nervous system that the body is safe and this will help to tone and activate our parasympathetic nervous system enhancing relaxation of both mind and body (which further supports better sleep, mood and digestion).
- Adequate hydration. It’s often difficult for children to convey how much water they drink in a day (it’s also difficult for adults too!) and so a great strategy for monitoring and supporting water intake is to buy a special water bottle for your child.If it’s a 500ml size, your child can be taught to get through one or two bottles (depends on their age and size) in the day and perhaps a star tracking chart could be put on the fridge to encourage this behavior. This is also a great opportunity to teach your child about noticing thirst signals and to drink water when they feel this urge. Other symptoms of low water status in the body are headaches, anxiety, poor sleep and constipation.
- Herbal medicine. Not only are there really safe and nutritive herbs to use in children, but it’s also a great way to support hydration.
- Herbal teas are a very safe way to deliver low doses of herbs to children and who doesn’t love the soothing effects of sitting down with a warm beverage!One of my favourite combinations is a blend of chamomile, lavender, and lemon balm;which are all calming and nourishing for the nervous system.
- To make the tea: with equal parts of each herb all mixed together, add 1 tsp of the dried herbs to 1 cup of boiled water, and steep in an enclosed container for 15 minutes (this ensures the medicinal value of the herbs are retained).Let it cool before drinking. Enjoy J
- Medicinal properties of the herbs
- Both lavender and chamomile are relaxing to the nervous system and also help with the absorption of nutrients after a meal. There is some caution for those who have a sensitivity to the Asteraceae family to which chamomile belongs.
- Lemon balm – is also relaxing to the nervous system, and helps to relieve digestive upset related to stress in the body. Additionally lemon balm, has anti-viral activity so it can be a great support during a cold.
Romm, Aviva. Naturally Healthy Babies and Children. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 2000.
Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism: the Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 2003.