Understanding the Vagus Nerve and What it Controls

May 12, 2023
Understanding the Vagus Nerve and What it Controls
Is your child’s behavior punctuated by screaming and crying when presented with something they’re afraid of or don’t like? Learn more about the vagus nerve and ways to use it to calm your loved one.

Does your child have trouble regulating their emotions? Perhaps your child has ADHD or an autism spectrum disorder. Maybe they have a learning disorder that’s resulted in anxiety. You’re likely seeking help to make your family time fun rather than a constant search for ways to calm your child’s outbursts. 

Under the direction of Dr. Charles Niesen, our board-certified pediatric neurologist at AMS Neurology in Pasadena, California, our team is here to help you learn ways to work with your child so life doesn’t feel like a battle. 

Learning more about how the vagus nerve works and using it to calm your child can help make everyone’s life more peaceful and less anxiety-driven. 

What is the vagus nerve and what is its role? 

Your vagus nerves start in your brainstem and wind through your body to your large intestine. 

These nerves are part of the autonomic nervous system and help regulate socioemotional function. 

When your child is upset, you likely see one of two responses: fight or flight. Your child may run and hide or throw a tantrum and strike out at anyone nearby. Neither response is socially appropriate. How do you help your child learn to moderate their responses to stimuli in the environment that they may not like? The vagus nerve can help calm your child down. 

Our staff works with your child in therapy sessions to help them learn new responses to environmental stimuli. We may also prescribe medication. 

Activities to calm your child

Following are methods you can use with your child to help them moderate their overactive response to the environment when they’re upset. Practicing these activities every day helps your child learn how to calm themselves when they’re not with you. 

Slow, deep breathing 

When your child is angry or fearful, they’re probably taking short, shallow breaths. Teach your child to breathe slowly from their diaphragm. This activates their vagus nerve, bringing more oxygen to your child’s brain and helping them calm down.

Tell your child their diaphragm is like a balloon inside their body, and they need to fill the balloon with one deep breath. Once it’s filled, pretend there’s a tiny hole in the balloon and tell them to slowly let the air out. 

You can start with two- or three-second increments in which your child inhales, holds their breath, and exhales. They can work up to four-second increments. Explain to your child that using this method when they feel overwhelmed will keep them from missing out on activities in class or with friends. 

Humming or singing 

Your child’s vagus nerve passes through their throat and vocal cords. They can activate it by humming or singing. You may have noticed your child making soft noises during an activity they like. They’re engaged in self-soothing. 

Listening to music, learning the words, and singing along is a great family activity. Pick out fun, silly songs that rhyme and are easy to memorize. Over time your child will build up a store of music that can soothe them when they feel anxious or upset. 

Chewing gum 

Teach your child to chew gum as a way for their vagus nerve to calm them. Keep sticks of gum in easy-to-reach places around your house. 

Using a weighted blanket or secure space 

Perhaps you’re already using a weighted blanket to calm fear responses. The weight of the blanket folded around your child helps them feel more secure. Some children also love the idea of going into a tent when they’re upset. 


Exercise benefits your brain and body. It helps soothe your nervous system and raises the level of endorphins, the hormones that produce a feeling of well-being. 

Help your child by providing a daily workout regimen like biking, hiking, running, or playing a team sport, if they’re able and ready. Taekwondo is a great outlet because it’s an individual sport done with a group, allowing your child to make friends at the same time. 

For a private consultation on how we can help, call our office at AMS Neurology or book an appointment online today.