Weighted Blankets for Autism, Insomnia and Anxiety
Weighted blankets are heavier than the kinds of blankets people usually buy. They typically weigh anywhere from 4 to 30 pounds, making them heavier than the average comforter or down quilt. For many people who have disorders such as anxiety, insomnia, or autism, weighted blankets may provide a safe alternative to medication or other types of treatment. They can also be used to complement existing therapies. Research has shown that weighted blankets can help reduce symptoms and manage these conditions.
What are the benefits of a weighted blanket for anxiety?
Weighted blankets can help reduce anxiety in both children and adults. They’re typically safe to use. They help many people achieve a relaxed state, allowing them to sleep more deeply.
Weighted blankets help ground your body during sleep by pushing it downwards. This process, known as “earthing” or “grounding,” may have a deeply calming effect. The blankets also simulate deep pressure touch (DPT), a type of therapy that uses firm, hands-on pressure to reduce chronic stress and high levels of anxiety.
Studies show that grounding may help reduce nighttime levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol is produced when your brain thinks you’re under attack, eliciting the fight or flight response. Stress can escalate cortisol levels. This can have a negative impact upon the immune system. It can also increase blood sugar levels and adversely affect the digestive tract.
Elevated cortisol levels, especially those that don’t drop back down to normal levels naturally, can cause multiple complications. These include:
- weight gain
By providing deep pressure touch, weighted blankets can promote relaxation and help break this cycle. This may trigger the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which are feel-good hormones produced in the brain. These hormones help combat stress, anxiety, and depression.
A study reported 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 the participants during sleep. This improved their sleep and alleviated stress, insomnia, and pain.
Another study found that 30-lb weighted blankets are a safe and effective way to reduce anxiety in adults. Of the 32 adults who participated in the study, 63 percent reported lower levels of anxiety.
Weighted blankets are being hyped as an insomnia cure. But do they work?
A growing number of insomnia sufferers are looking for a better night’s sleep under a weighted blanket. These trendy blankets are filled with pellets, balls, or chains, which give them their heft. Fans of the blankets say the pressure feels like a firm hug, giving new meaning to the word “comforter.”
The idea has intuitive appeal. It could explain why some people prefer to sleep under a heavy blanket even in warm weather. Scientific research on weighted blankets is limited, however. Here’s what is known—and what isn’t—about how well the blankets work for easing insomnia in adults.
Research in Adults with Insomnia
Perhaps the best evidence to date comes from a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders. This study included 31 adults with chronic insomnia. Their sleep was tracked for one week with their usual bedding, then two weeks with a weighted blanket, and then one more week with their usual bedding again.
Four out of five study participants said they liked the weighted blanket. Those in this group slept longer and spent less time awake in the middle of the night while using the weighted blanket, sleep testing showed. Study participants also said they found it easier to settle down to sleep with the weighted blanket. Plus, they reported getting better sleep and feeling more refreshed the next morning.
The theory behind weighted blankets is that they may work, in part, by providing firm, deep pressure stimulation. “The pressure provides a reassuring and cocooning feeling,” says study coauthor Gaby Badre, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Gothenburg and medical director of the sleep disorders clinic (SDS Kliniken) in Gothenburg, Sweden.
In addition, Badre says that the weighting material inside the blanket produces a lighter, stroking-like tactile sensation when you move. “This tactile stimulation, amplified by movements, even if small, may be the equivalent of a caress,” says Badre. It may stimulate the release of neurotransmitters and affect nervous system activity in ways that decrease overarousal and anxiety.
Other Research on Weighted Blankets
Further evidence on weighted blankets comes from research in kids with various mental health concerns.
One study looked at 42 children (ages 8 to 13), half of whom had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The children’s sleep was tracked by sleep testing and parent diaries for four weeks, including two weeks of using a weighted blanket. For kids with ADHD, the weighted blanket reduced the time it took to fall asleep and the number of middle-of-the-night awakenings to a level comparable to children without ADHD.
Research in 73 young people (ages 5 to 16) with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and severe sleep problems compared a weighted blanket to an identical blanket without the extra weight. Based on sleep testing and parent diaries, the weighted blanket didn’t improve their sleep. Yet kids and parents preferred the weighted blanket. They may have been picking up on a benefit the researchers didn’t measure. But because they could tell which blanket was heavier, they may also have been swayed by stories on social media and in the press touting weighted blankets for kids with ASD.
For now, we’re left with more questions than answers about the benefits of weighted blankets for people with sleep issues. “There is much more research needed in this regard,” says Courtney Golding, Ph.D., a sleep psychologist at Spectrum Health Sleep Medicine in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
When Insomnia Weighs on Your Mind
Still, a blanket that hugs you all night long sounds awfully nice. And some experts say it's plausible that weighted blankets could help fend off sleeplessness. “Given that insomnia is frustrating, it can lead to anxiety related to sleep (or lack thereof) even in individuals who are not typically anxious,” says Golding.
These individuals may need a little extra soothing at bedtime—exactly the kind of soothing that a weighted blanket is designed to provide. Golding says that “steady sensory input and pressure can reduce the body’s physiological arousal level, leading to a reduction in feelings of anxiety and tension.”
Things to Consider
If you’re thinking about buying a weighted blanket for yourself or another adult, it should generally be a bit more than 10 percent of the user's body weight. He notes that people vary in exactly how heavy they like the blanket to be. If possible, try before you buy to find what’s comfortable for you.
Of course, the blanket should never be so heavy that it restricts your movement or is difficult for you to manage. To be on the safe side, elderly individuals and those with health concerns should talk with their health care provider before trying a weighted blanket. This type of blanket may not be appropriate for people with breathing difficulties, circulatory problems, or temperature regulation issues.
Make sure the weight is evenly distributed throughout the whole blanket. It is important that the blanket does not increase the temperature of the bedding. The fabric should dissipate heat easily.
If you’re handy with a sewing machine, you may be able to make your own weighted blanket. “Otherwise, weighted blankets can run on the expensive side,” says Golding. Due to the dearth of research, it’s impossible to predict who will get a good return on their investment. Yet an increasing number of insomniacs seem to be deciding that the possibility of a good night’s sleep is priceless.
How heavy should a weighted blanket be?
Your own weight should help you determine the weight of the blanket. Some weighted blanket manufacturers recommend that adults buy a blanket that’s 5 to 10 percent of their body weight. For children, they recommend blankets that are 10 percent of their body weight plus 1 to 2 pounds. Your doctor or an occupational therapist can also help you to decide which weight blanket will be the most comfortable and efficient for you.
It’s also a good idea to choose a blanket that’s made from a natural fiber, such as breathable 100 percent cotton. Polyester and other synthetic fabrics are typically much hotter.
Weighted blankets aren’t for everyone, since they may add some heat as well as weight. Before using a weighted blanket, you should discuss it with your doctor if you:
- have a chronic health condition
- are going through menopause
- have circulation issues
- have respiration issues