Here’s Why Your Friends Are Sleeping With Weighted Blankets
By: Alison Moodie
May 8, 2018
- Weighted blankets are designed to simulate a hug, which studies show could have a calming effect.
- Weighted blankets were originally used to help children with autism sleep better. There’s a growing body of evidence showing they could help insomnia and ease anxiety in adults.
- Weighted blankets are generally safe to use, but they do pose a suffocation risk for children under three.
- Experts say it’s an easy hack that’s “safe, non-invasive, and with high potential benefit.”
You may have heard about the Gravity Blanket, a weighted blanket that scored nearly $5 million last year on crowdfunding site Kickstarter (they raised a whopping $150k on the first day). Originally designed for children with autism, weighted blankets have hit the mainstream in a big way. They promise to improve your sleep and ease anxiety by mimicking the feeling of a cozy hug. Who wouldn’t want that? Find out if you too should give these adult security blankets a try.
Why use a weighted blanket
Weighted blankets are typically filled with plastic poly-pellets (think Beanie Babies, that late-1990s toy craze), weighing anywhere from two to 24 pounds. The way the blanket cocoons the body is a form of deep pressure therapy (DPT) — firm squeezing, stroking, swaddling, and massage that calms the nervous system and reduces high arousal levels in adults and children.
The pressure stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system — the part of the body responsible for turning off your stress response, making you feel peaceful and relaxed.
“Constricting movement through swaddling and hugging creates a sensory input to the cerebellum that has a calming effect in humans and most animals, and in some, the effect is nearly immediate,” says W. Chris Winter, M.D., president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of “The Sleep Solution.”
Weighted blankets and sleep
For years, children with developmental disorders — particularly autism — have used weighted blankets to sleep more soundly. However, research is thin on whether they actually work. In a 2014 study, a weighted blanket didn’t help autistic children fall asleep faster, wake less often, or sleep longer. However, the children and their parents said they preferred the weighted blanket over the normal one.
There’s some evidence that weighted blankets could help adults with insomnia. A 2015 study from Sweden found that people with moderate insomnia slept longer and moved less when using a weighted blanket. But take the results with a pinch of salt — the study involved just 32 participants and there was no control group. Somna AB, a Swedish manufacturer of weighted blankets, also underwrote the report.
Related: How to Hack Your Sleep: The Art and Science of Sleeping
Weighted blankets and anxiety
Manufacturers say the way the blanket cocoons the body helps soothe the nervous system.
“We call it the ‘blanket that hugs you back’ because it molds to the body, creating that safe and calm effect,” says Katie Zivalich, director of communications at The Magic Blanket, one of the first companies to manufacture weighted blankets.
A study from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst found that nearly two-thirds of participants reported feeling less anxious after lying under a 30-pound blanket for five minutes, compared with lying for five minutes without one. But this study too was based on a small sample size and lacked a control group.
According to Ellen Vora, M.D., a holistic psychiatrist, weighted blankets may turn down anxiety by recalibrating our nervous system. Our ancestors made a point to keep infants in constant physical contact with another person, usually the mother, she says. Nowadays, babies typically spend a lot of time in cribs, strollers, and swings, depriving them of close touch. (Note that weighted blankets should never be used on children under age 3.)
“Perhaps the relative absence of that early touch in modern life leaves the nervous system in a state of feeling slightly more stressed, slightly less relaxed, which can manifest as depression and anxiety later in life,” says Vora. “Perhaps a weighted blanket is effectively like a big, belated hug, attempting to reprogram the nervous system that we are in fact okay and secure.”
What to look for
Most manufacturers suggest buying a blanket that is 10 percent of your body weight, but it really boils down to personal preference. The Gravity Blanket comes in three different weights — 15, 20, or 25 pounds. Mosaic, a Texas-based company, offers a wide range of blankets, weighing anywhere from 2 to 30 pounds. There’s a weighted blanket for every taste and style. Gravity is only offered in metallic grey, while Mosaic sells a huge variety of patterns and colors, from simple plaid to an emoji pattern.
When choosing a size, typically you want the blanket to cover you from your shoulders down to your feet, says Zivalich, of Magic Weighted Blanket. And it’s best not to share your blanket with others, she added.
“The blanket is intended for one individual so that the blanket can mold to the body,” she says.
The weight ideally should be evenly distributed in the blanket, “to provide constant tactile stimulation distributed throughout the body,” wrote the researchers of the Swedish sleep study.
Are weighted blankets safe?
Weighted blankets are generally safe to use — though they should be kept off of the face and neck while you’re sleeping. According to the Massachusetts-Amherst study, weighted blankets did not have a discernible effect on the participants’ vital signs, including oxygen levels in the blood, pulse rate, and blood pressure.
It’s best to keep weighted blankets away from children under three, or anyone weighing less than 50 pounds, since they pose a suffocation hazard. Young children could also choke on the plastic poly-pellets, in the event that a blanket is torn or damaged.
So should you buy one?
Most companies allow returns within a week and up to one month after purchase, so you have a bit of time to try out your blanket. Bear in mind it needs to at least appear unused — so giving it a proper test run is difficult. They’re also an investment — most weighted blankets for adults cost $200 or more.
If you’re willing to lay down the cash, it’s worth giving them a shot, says Winter.
“As someone who embraces all kinds of treatments for the athletes and patients I treat for sleep issues, I can say that the blankets clearly help some people subjectively sleep better,” he says.
Keep in mind that a weighted blanket is just one tool in your arsenal. Dealing with anxiety and sleeplessness generally requires a multi-pronged approach that can include therapy, medication, and dietary changes.
But it’s an easy hack that’s “safe, non-invasive, and with high potential benefit,” says Vora. “In summary, it’s worth a try.”