What Is a Weighted Blanket?

Pros and Cons About the Popular “Pressure Therapy” Device

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Weighted blankets, also known as gravity blankets, have been used for years by mental health professionals as a form of pressure therapy. Today, they have gained mainstream popularity with those who believe that the pellet-filled blankets, which weigh anywhere from 5 to 30 pounds, can relieve stress, improve sleep, calm children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and aid in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

Although many people report improvements in their health and well-being from these popular blankets, there remains considerable debate as to whether they offer the benefits that some proponents claim.

child with weighted blanket
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Uses

Many adults associate snuggling under a comfy blanket with a sense of security, which harkens back to “security blankets” that they may have had as a child. Blankets are often referred to as “comfort objects” by child psychologists—that is, an item used to ease frustration or anxiety at times of stress.

An older study by psychologist and security object expert Richard Passman, now retired from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, found that approximately 60% of children are attached to a toy, blanket, or pacifier during the first three years of life.

More recent studies have examined adult attachment to transitional objects, such as blankets and stuffed animals. In one study using a non-clinical community sample of 80 participants, researchers found that people who reported intense attachments to objects were significantly more likely to meet the criteria for borderline personality disorder than those who did not; they also reported more childhood trauma.

Weighted blankets aim to simulate the same therapeutic effects of a security blanket by intensifying the sensation of being held, stroked, cuddled, or squeezed.

The science behind using a weighted blanket is a well-known and proven relaxation therapy that is frequently used for people with stress and anxiety. Known by various names, it is commonly referred to as deep pressure stimulation (DPS).

DPS, offered by trained practitioners who apply light pressure to certain parts of the body, stimulates what is known as the parasympathetic nervous system. The nervous system reacts to stressful situations naturally, by inducing its “alert” state, which produces anxiety and stress.

When the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, it releases endorphins, the “happy hormones’” that instill feelings of calm. In replicating DPS, a weighted blanket creates a similar sort of effect, akin to being cocooned in your favorite duvet on a cold winter night, knowing you are protected from the outside world.

Weighted blankets may help adults and children with sensory processing disorder feel calmer and more relaxed. Persons with this disorder have difficulty processing sensory information such as textures, sounds, smells, tastes, brightness, and movement.

These difficulties can make ordinary situations overwhelming, can interfere with daily living, and even isolate individuals and their families. Sensory integration therapy uses activities in ways designed to change how the brain reacts to various stimuli.

Applying deep pressure has been shown to beneficial for children with high levels of anxiety or arousal due to sensory overload. According to research, the application of deep pressure, provided by a weighted vest or blanket, can produce a calming or relaxing effect in children with certain clinical conditions who have sensory processing disorder.

These conditions include:

  • ASD
  • ADHD
  • Pervasive developmental disorders

Benefits

Although more studies are needed, research has been conducted on the use of weighted blankets to treat the following conditions:

General Anxiety

Some studies show that the use of weighted blankets may help reduce nighttime levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that can contribute to anxiety. Cortisol is best known for producing the “fight or flight” response, a reaction that evolved as a means of survival, enabling people to react to what could be a life-threatening situation.

Over time, however, elevated cortisol levels in response to non-threatening situations can have a negative impact on a person's physical and mental health, leading to anxiety and depression.

By providing deep pressure touch, weighted blankets can promote relaxation and help break this cycle. This helps trigger the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which are feel-good hormones produced in the brain that help combat stress, anxiety, and depression.

A small study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine indicated that grounding the human body while sleeping is an effective way to synchronize cortisol secretion with its natural, 24-hour circadian rhythms, especially in women. Grounding helped reduce cortisol production in participants during sleep and alleviated insomnia, stress, and pain.

Another study involving the use of a 30-pound weighted blanket with a sample of 32 adults of which 63% reported lower anxiety after use.

Anxiety During Certain Medical Procedures

 A 2016 study, believed to be the first one investigating the effect of deep pressure stimulation during wisdom tooth extraction, examined heart rate variability and anxiety in healthy adults using weighted blankets while undergoing the procedure. Researchers found that weighted blanket group experienced lower anxiety symptoms than the control group.

A similar follow-up study was performed a few years later on healthy adolescents using a weighted blanket during a molar extraction. Those results also found less anxiety in those using a weighted blanket.

Since medical procedures tend to cause anxiety symptoms like increased heart rate, researchers concluded that weighted blankets may be beneficial in calming those symptoms

Since medical procedures tend to cause anxiety symptoms like increased heart rate, researchers concluded that weighted blankets may be beneficial in calming those symptoms.

Insomnia

Most research on weighted blankets and insomnia has focused on their use in children with clinical disorders, such as ASD, as discussed below. However, the majority of these studies do not examine sleep objectively.

A Swedish study published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders concluded that the use of weighted blankets had a positive impact on sleep, both objectively and subjectively, where a number of physiological and behavioral measures were improved in a cohort of 31 adults. However, the study was biased in that it was conducted by a blanket manufacturer and had design limitations, such as the lack of a control group.

A systematic literature review, which evaluated eight studies, concluded that while weighted blankets have the potential to be beneficial in limited settings and populations, and may be an appropriate therapeutic tool in reducing anxiety, there is not enough evidence to suggest that they are beneficial in alleviating insomnia.

Insomnia in Children with ASD

Children with ASD sleep poorly compared with their peers. A study published in Pediatrics involving 67 children with ASD found that the use of a weighted blanket did not help them fall asleep significantly faster, sleep for a longer period of time, or awaken less often.

Sleep Problems in Children with ADHD

As with children with ASD, many children with ADHD have sleep disturbances, such as trouble falling asleep and waking up several times throughout the night. Unlike children with ASD, however, weighted blankets proved useful in some instances in children with ADHD who had difficulty sleeping.

A study involving 21 children ages 8 to 13 years with ADHD and 21 healthy controls found that the use of a weighted blanket improved the time it took to fall asleep and the number of awakenings to a level comparable to that of the controls.

A more recent study examined 120 patients who were randomized (1-to-1) to either a weighted metal chain blanket or a light plastic chain blanket for four weeks. Researchers found that weighted chain blankets are an effective and safe intervention for insomnia in patients with ADHD and other psychiatric disorders.

It is important to note that, despite positive findings in several of these studies, they are limited by their small size, short duration, and/or lack of diverse subjects. Further research on the benefits of weighted blankets is needed in all of these therapeutic areas.

Although there have been studies on the benefits of massage therapy for osteoarthritis and chronic pain, there is currently no evidence that weighted blankets are effective in the treatment of these conditions.

Some manufacturers make unsubstantiated claims about weighted blankets benefiting certain health and psychological conditions but ultimately, it’s up to the consumer to do their own research and make an educated decision.

Risks

As a general rule, weighted blankets are safe for healthy adults, older children, and teenagers. Weighted blankets, however, should not be used for toddlers under age 2, as it may pose a suffocation risk. Even older children with developmental disabilities or delays may be at risk of suffocation.

There have been at least two reports of deaths in children due to weighted blankets, one in a 7-month-old baby and one in a 9-year-old boy who had autism. Parents should consult their pediatrician before using a weighted blanket for children of any age.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no blankets of any kind be used for sleeping infants as they carry a risk of sudden infant death syndrome.

People with certain health conditions should also avoid weighted blankets. These include chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and obstructive sleep apnea.

In addition, a weighted blanket may also be unsuitable for those people who are claustrophobic, as it may cause anxiety rather than ease it.

Safety

As a general rule, a weighted blanket should be 10% of an adult person’s body weight, according to most manufacturers’ websites. Other guidelines include:

  • Adults can use medium-large weighted blankets ranging from 12 to 30 pounds.
  • For a 30- to 70-pound child, a small weighted blanket should weigh from 5 to 8 pounds.
  • For a 30- to 130-pound child, a medium-weighted blanket should weigh from 5 to 15 pounds.

Young children should never be left unsupervised with a weighted blanket, particularly those made for an adult.

A Word From Verywell

While there is no conclusive evidence that weighted blankets are effective for the treatment of any health condition, they are popular with many people due to the comfort they provide.

Some studies have shown positive results in reducing anxiety and helping children with ADHD get a good night's sleep. If you are a healthy adult, there is little risk of trying one, other than to your wallet, as they start around $100.

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