You may have heard that weighted blankets help with sleep and anxiety. But you may wonder if the claims are real or just hype.
Here’s what a weighted blanket can help with — along with how and when to use one.
What Are Weighted Blankets?
Weighted blankets are blankets filled with plastic pellets, glass beads, or other materials to add heft. They can weigh from 5 pounds to 30 pounds. Large-knotted knit blankets can also create this weight.
Depending on the manufacturer, weighted blankets come in increasing increments of 2 to 5 pounds.
If you’ve never tried a weighted blanket, you may wonder what it feels like. It feels a lot like the lead vests your dentist uses to shield you from radiation during x-rays, without the stiffness.
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How Do Weighted Blankets Work?
Most of the science behind weighted blankets comes from a therapeutic technique known as deep pressure stimulation (DPS). DPS uses firm but gentle pressure to relax your nervous system.
DPS uses touch from hands, massage tools, and products that wrap around you. DPS, including weighted blankets, is often used in occupational therapy for a variety of mental health and sensory issues, particularly autism spectrum disorder.
Researchers believe DPS and weighted blankets work in several ways:
- When the weight activates pressure points under your skin, it reduces levels of cortisol (a stress hormone). That’s according to a systematic review on weighted blankets for anxiety and insomnia in the American Journal of Occupational Therapists (AJOT).
- DPS helps maintain your body’s sympathovagal balance. That means it helps your body shift from a “fight or flight” response during stress to a “rest and digest” state. That’s according to AppliedBehaviorAnalysisEdu.org.
Potential Benefits of a Weighted Blanket
Because of their effect on the nervous systems, weighted blankets may benefit people with the following conditions:
- Restless leg syndrome
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Sensory processing issues
- Mental health disorders
- Mental health issues involving trauma
Direct evidence on the benefits of weighted blankets is limited, and often inconclusive, according to AJOT. Their review looked at the benefits of weighted blankets for anxiety and sleep and found:
- They show some success in providing a safe and effective way to reduce anxiety in adults.
- They can be helpful in easing anxiety during dental procedures.
- The results were inconclusive when it came to their impact on insomnia and sleep disturbance.
- Some randomized controlled trials — a gold standard for evidence — showed no effect on overall sleep quality. But study participants reported that weighted blankets contributed to better sleep. Other less rigorous studies found weighted blankets increased overall sleep quantity and slightly decreased the time it took to fall asleep.
- There’s not enough robust evidence to justify the widespread use of weighted blankets for children with autism. In one study, weighted blankets were shown to be ineffective at reducing anxiety in children with autism.
Weighted blankets continue to interest researchers for a variety of health issues. Studies since the systematic review have found that weighted blankets can:
- Ease anxiety during infusion for adults receiving chemotherapy. That’s according to a randomized controlled trial published in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing.
- Improve insomnia in those with mental health disorders who use one during sleep. This includes major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. That’s according to a randomized controlled study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
How to Use a Weighted Blanket
According to the AJOT review, even in studies where weighted blankets didn’t improve overall measurable sleep quality, study participants still preferred using them. Or they reported feeling better or sleeping better.
When — and how often — you use your weighted blanket depends on your own comfort level. You can choose to sleep with it all night. Or simply use it before bedtime to help you relax. But there are some dos and don’ts to follow:
- Pick a weight that's right for you. A good rule of thumb is to choose a blanket that’s no more than 10 percent of your body weight. To get that, multiply your body weight by 0.10. For example, a person weighing 150 lbs. should not use a blanket heavier than 15 lbs.
- Pick a size that works for you. Weighted blankets come in different dimensions to fit your bed or to throw over your lap. They can be difficult to maneuver under and pull off, so don’t get one larger than your needs.
- Don't use weighted blankets on infants and toddlers. This can lead to suffocation and sudden infant death syndrome. Most manufacturers recommend waiting to use a weighted blanket until your child is at least 4 years or older.
- Ask your pediatrician whether it's safe to use for your child.
- Check with your doctor or therapist before using for a child with autism spectrum disorder. If your child doesn’t want to use the blanket, don’t force them.
Who Shouldn’t Use a Weighted Blanket
For most adults, trying out a weighted blanket is low risk. For others, weighted blankets can worsen symptoms of some medical conditions. You should use caution while using the blanket, ensuring the blanket does not rip open. The filling inside could be a risk if ingested. Talk to your doctor before using a weighed blanket if you have any of the following:
- Asthma or sleep apnea. The weight of the blanket can make breathing more difficult.
- Diabetes. The extra weight can further restrict circulation in those with diabetes.
- Claustrophobia. Weighted blankets can be heavy and difficult to maneuver under, triggering a fear response in those with claustrophobia.
If you’re trying to manage anxiety and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital can help. We treat mood and anxiety disorders and also offer comprehensive, state-of-the-art programs for both children and adults with autism.
Weighted Blanket Use: A Systematic Review. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy. March/April 2020. Link.
What is Deep Pressure Stimulations? AppliedBehaviorAnalysisEdu.org. Link.
Weighted Blankets: Do They Work? Medical News Today. Link.
Weighted Blankets: Anxiety Reduction in Adult Patients Receiving Chemotherapy. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. Link.
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.