Long ago, humans discovered the comfort and security of sleeping under a pile of blankets. This instinctual action prompted behavioral scientists to research why this practice seems to improve sleep. Results suggest the method mimics the effects of baby swaddling. The mental health community began using early versions of the weighted blanket to calm patients. Word spread to special needs communities, and therapists found that weighted blankets help relax children with autism. Today, many adults with sleep disorders turn to weighted blankets to ease their anxiety and improve their sleep quality.
Weighted blankets look like normal blankets. Manufacturers fill them with glass or plastic beads or pellets to increase their weight, then sew the beads into pockets inside the blanket to ensure even weight distribution. A layer of polyester fiberfill makes the blanket softer. When assembled, the blankets weigh between three and 30 pounds. Manufacturers recommend a blanket that weighs about 10% of the user's body weight. A 200-pound person, for example, should choose a blanket weighing 20 pounds.
Companies that sell weighted blankets offer a long list of therapeutic benefits. They say the blanket simulates a hug or cocooning effect, which comforts and calms the nervous system. It creates a sensation behavioral experts call “grounding” or deep-touch pressure. Weighted blankets apply moderate pressure to the body, pushing it further into the sleeping surface. Manufacturers say this triggers the release of serotonin and dopamine, the “happiness hormones.” Others say the blankets lower levels of cortisol, the main stress hormone. This increases the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls sleep-wake cycles.
For decades, therapists have used weighted blankets to help calm children with autism, ADHD, and behavioral disorders, conditions that often cause sleep issues. Experts say weighted blankets help their patients self-regulate anxiety or stress levels, which increases their ability to relax. Psychiatrists and occupational therapists also use weighted blankets, along with other sensory tools, for treating patients in psychiatric units.
Between one and 15% of people of all ages experience somnambulism or sleepwalking. Doctors say sleep deprivation, interrupted sleep, or insufficient sleep leads to the condition. Weighted blanket manufacturers claim that if a person feels more relaxed before falling asleep, they experience deeper sleep. A person who sleepwalks could reduce sleepwalking episodes by using a weighted blanket to encourage these deeper stages. This solution may be especially effective for young children.
About one-third of the U.S. population avoids going to the dentist due to dental anxiety. After some patients reported feeling less anxious while lying under the heavy X-ray protector drape, dentists began draping patients with a weighted blanket and noticed this increased feelings of calm in anxious patients. A 2016 study showed that people who wore a weighted blanket during wisdom tooth extractions had reduced feelings of stress and anxiety.
Scientific evidence supporting the benefits of weighted blankets is sparse, with most proof anecdotal, based on word-of-mouth experiences and testimonials. A few small studies have discovered science-based benefits, however. Most have no control groups. A 2012 study did find that weighted blankets decreased distress and anxiety in psychiatric patients. Another 2014 study of children with autism and their ability to fall asleep compared a blanket with beads to a weighted blanket. They found no differences in the blankets’ ability to improve sleep patterns. Researchers are quick to point out that companies often make claims about their weighted blankets that lack scientific support.
Although the weight of the blanket is its most important feature, the fabric is also crucial to comfort, and there are many factors to consider. People with sensory issues are sensitive to texture, so softer materials are preferable. Blankets made from natural fibers allow users to stay cooler. Cotton and wool weighted blankets offer year-round comfort, but they generally cost more, too. Polyester versions are less costly, warmer, and less breathable, but also tend to hold on to dust. When deciding on a weighted blanket, apply the old principle of “not too hot, not too cold.” Sleep research studies indicate that people sleep best at temperatures between 62 and 70 degrees.
Some researchers suggest the benefits of weighted blankets come from a placebo effect and have no scientific evidence, but that doesn’t make the treatments any less effective. If an individual feels an improvement, then it is successful. For most people, the blankets are not likely to cause any harm or adverse effects and may help with anxiety and sleeping issues. Sleep experts recommend experimenting with different weight variations of blankets and comforters before choosing and purchasing a weighted blanket.
Although weighted blankets are safe for most people, some should speak to a physician before making a purchase:
Weighted blankets aren’t for everyone. Those who dislike feeling confined may not enjoy the sensation of being weighed down. Research also shows that weighted blankets do not work for every type of sleep disturbance. The cost of these blankets is a consideration; however, there are online tutorials that provide step-by-step instructions so crafty individuals can make their own. Sleep experts encourage individuals to try other proven solutions to address sleep issues if weighted blankets do not alleviate the problem.
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