An Introduction to Whole Body Parenting

By Dawn Rundman, Ph.D.

On August 22, I led a 30-minute Facebook Live event titled “Whole Body Parenting” that to date has over 1500 views. Here’s a summary.

Many of my presentations for parents and church leaders have focused on learning about early brain development—learning how the neurons in the brain form connections with other neurons and become pathways that are shaped by the experiences that young children have. (You can watch my April 25 presentation titled “Your Child’s Plastic Brain” here, an encore performance of the MOMcon workshop I led in 2016.) For this Facebook Live event, I wanted to explore the ways we use our whole bodies to parent. I’ll share with you some of the research findings and include some scripture references. Hopefully this content will help you gain some new insights about parenting with our whole bodies, and how we can do this in faithful ways.

Here are the three areas I researched: breathing, touch, and movement.

Breathing is usually automatic, involuntary, and continuous, but breathing is also the only automatic function that we can regulate voluntarily. When we choose to focus on our breathing, especially when we are feeling stressed or anxious, our deep breathing triggers our parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) to counter the “fight or flight” responses that are triggered by our sympathetic nervous system.

When we feel upset, or angry, or overwhelmed, or fed up, or panicked, those states are associated with the fight or flight response in our bodies that speed up our breathing and our heart rates. When we step out of those moments to take control of our breathing, we can actually override those physical stress responses. (You can’t be in both physical states at once—when you start deep breathing, your parasympathetic nervous system tells your sympathetic response, “Knock it off—I’m in charge now.”)

Now what are some of those breathing techniques? Lots have been developed, but you’ll see (and try) the 4-7-8 Breathing technique in the Facebook Live event: Inhale for 4, hold for 7, exhale for 8.

Here’s the amazing thing—you can teach these techniques to your child too. And when you do, they have fun names! (Note: Teach while kids are calm, not in the middle of a tense situation.) Watch the Facebook Live event to learn Flower-and-Candle Breathing, Feather Breathing, and Bear Breathing.

We know that breathing brings about some differences in our physiology, and can help our kids calm down. Isn’t it amazing that we can also look to scripture for examples of breathing’s power? Here are just a few passages:

Genesis 2:7 God breathes life into humans.

Acts: 17:24-25 God gives breath to humans.

Job 33:4 Job credits the breath of the Almighty for giving him life.

Ezekiel 37:5 God breathes life into dry bones.

John 20:22 Jesus breathes on his disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit.

Breath has power, and as you parent with your whole body and your whole self, may you know how your breathing and your children’s breathing can be a part of your parenting.

 Now…on to the power of touch!

Of our five senses, touch is the most developed one in newborns. If you’ve had a little one who needed more time in the hospital after birth, you may already be familiar with the power of touch. The work of Dr. Tiffany Field stands out as some of the earliest and most compelling research on the importance of touch right at the beginning of life, especially for babies born preterm.

But it’s not just humans who need touch—animals do too! You’ll have to watch the Facebook Live event to see what happens when worms are isolated from their wiggly community.

When we touch our children in gentle, loving ways, we are helping them develop rich neural connections in the brain regions that process touch. We are also helping them form positive associations emotionally so they know they are safe and secure with us. All of this touch helps children form positive, secure attachments to their primary caregivers. (I recognize that for some children, touch is not part of comforting interaction. Whether it’s a child with a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder, autism, Asperger’s, or another, these parents have a puzzle to figure out—what types of touch will help their child.)

When we touch our children in gentle, loving ways, that’s the ideal, right? But we know there are times when we need to be firm with them, especially when it comes to their safety. It can be confusing or overwhelming for a toddler or preschooler to have to manage different types of touches from a parent or other caregiver—sometimes gentle and loving, sometimes rough and harsh. So here’s where some integration comes in…when we discover that our touch is not gentle or loving, we can take a deep breath to reset…and then touch.

When we look to scripture, we see remarkable accounts of people who are touched and changed.

In Jeremiah 1:9, God used touch as a way to call Jeremiah.

Isaiah 6:7 describes the call of Isaiah when a seraph touches a live coal to his lips. (Ouch!)

In Daniel 10:16, when Daniel is called, he is touched twice, once on the lips by “one in human form.”

And we see the power of touch in the life of Jesus:

Matthew 9:18-25 describes Jesus on the way to the house of a girl who has died. Her father has asked Jesus to lay his hands on her. On their way, a woman suffering from bleeding touches his cloak and Jesus knows he’s been touched. He sees the woman and makes her well. Then he goes to the girl’s home and takes her by the hand—and she rises!

Later in Matthew’s Gospel (20:34), two men who were blind call out to Jesus “Lord, have mercy!” and ask him to open their eyes. He touches them and they regain sight—and follow him.

While Jesus and his disciples are in the garden in Luke 22:51, someone in the crowd strikes a solider with a sword and cuts off his right ear. Jesus touches the soldier’s ear and heals him.

Not all touch stories are healing stories.

Matthew 17:6-7 describes Jesus’ Transfiguration. When he is on the mountain with Peter and James and John, they are terrified. Jesus touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

In Mark 10:13, parents bring their children to Jesus so that he would touch them. After telling his disciples, “Let the children come to me,” he takes them in his arms and lays his hands on them and blesses them.

John 20:24-27 tells us that Thomas will not believe until he touches Jesus’ hands and side.

The power of your touch is amazing. As caregivers of little ones who are in touch with them each day, you have the power of showing them love and gentleness and healing. We may think that our faithful parenting is all about what we tell our young children about Jesus, but a powerful way you show the love of Jesus is through your touch.

 MOVEMENT

How is it that whole body parenting includes movement with our young children? Let’s spend a moment thinking about movement in our young children. Research shows that the vestibular system is well developed at birth, meaning that our little babies already have a sense of balance and motion perception. Our little ones are dependent on us for movement experiences until they begin moving around on their own. Once they can sit up, crawl, cruise on furniture, then walk, they are learning about the world around them. For them, moving is learning and their bodies become a tool for learning.

If children learn by moving and experiencing the world around them; how can parenting include faith in all of this movement?

Faithful parenting is not just about reading quietly or praying while everyone is calm. Using our whole bodies to parent our children can include rituals and routines that involve movement.

Dancing to faith-based music has a long history:

In Exodus 15:20, Miriam and the women dance and play tambourines after the Hebrew people have crossed the Red Sea.

David dances before the Lord in 2 Samuel 6:14 when he brings the ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.

And the Psalms (149:3, 150:4) name ways we praise God’s name with dancing and playing instruments.

When we teach our children prayer postures, we model how people have prayed for thousands of years.

In 1 Kings 8:54, Solomon kneels and stretches out his hands

Psalm 95:6 calls us to worship, bow down, and kneel.

And in Daniel 6:10, he knelt three times a day to pray to God.

Jesus also knelt in Luke 22:41 and prayed to his Father.

Psalm 46:10 may call us to “Be still and know that I am God,” but as parents, you can look for all the ways to model faith to your child through your movements together.

May God bless you and your whole body and mind and heart as you raise your child in faith through breath and touch and movement!

Dawn Rundman has a Ph.D in developmental psychology. She is currently the director of congregational resource development at Sparkhouse, a publisher of resources that spark new life in Christian communities. She lives in the Twin Cities with her husband/prom date Jonathan and their two children, who have learned by now that solving any challenge in life begins with three deep breaths.