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Weighing in on weighted blankets: Do they really help anxiety?

Is anxiety keeping you up at night? How often do you lie awake in bed, unable to turn off the gears in your brain? Whether it’s tomorrow’s to-do list, that conversation you wish had gone differently today or mounting financial stress, feelings of anxiety can chip away at those much needed 7 to 9 hours of sleep.

So, what’s the secret to sleeping like a dream? Some point to the weighted blanket as a therapeutic tool to help you relax and lower anxiety levels. In the past few years, weighted blankets have gone from fad to mainstream with growing numbers of people raving about their improved sleep and stress management.

But before you go and “add to cart,” read what the science says about the potential benefits of this cozy trend.

The science behind weighted blankets

Weighted blankets have become popular over the past few years due to the idea that they may help individuals who suffer from conditions such as insomnia, anxiety and stress-related sleeping disorders. They’re similar in outward appearance to a typical blanket, but the difference is that they contain weighted particles —usually made of steel or heavy plastic.

These blankets typically weigh between 5 to 10 percent of one’s ideal body weight.

The therapeutic use was first initiated by occupational therapists employing a sensory-based approach among people with learning and pervasive developmental disabilities. A study performed in Taiwan compared 60 participants undergoing wisdom tooth extraction. The study group received deep pressure input via a weighted blanket; the control group did not. Researchers found the study group had higher activity in the brain that usually responds to low stress situations and thus, concluded that deep-pressure input may be appropriate to help individuals in high stress situations.

Another study asked 32 adult participants to lay under a 30-pound blanket for five minutes. Seventy-eight percent reported that they felt more relaxed with the blanket than without. Due to the small study population and limited time, these results couldn’t be generalized to a larger population.

Related: 7 reasons you’re having trouble sleeping

Children and weighted blankets

The literature supporting use of weighted blankets is limited when it comes to children. There’s only one published study that focused on the effects of a weighted blanket for children with autism and severe sleep disorders.  Of the 67 children who completed the study, there was no difference in how long it took for them to fall asleep, how often they woke throughout the night or how long they slept.

 A case control study in Denmark looked at sleep patterns of 21 children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and 21 controls using weighted blankets. The findings?

  • The children with ADHD who used a weighted blanket fell asleep faster.
  • The children with no ADHD fell asleep about the same amount of time with the weighted blanket vs. without it.
  • The weighted blankets also had an impact in the classroom with a 10 percent improvement in attention and activity levels.

This is currently the only study looking at weighted blankets in children with ADHD for sleep. The results did show an improvement in the time required to fall asleep and subsequent behavior in school. However, the study was small and the blanket was only used for a short period of time. There is still much to learn about the effectiveness of weighted blankets for helping children overcome sleep challenges.

If you’re the parent of an infant, make sure you’re following the safe sleep guidelines issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Currently, the AAP’s safe sleep guidelines recommend that parents and caregivers do not use blankets of any kind around babies, and especially while they are sleeping or napping.

Related: 4 ways to fight stress and anxiety with food

Is a weighted blanket right for you?

Based on the limited evidence, it doesn’t appear that weighted blankets could replace other modalities of treatment for anxiety, stress or insomnia. However, they may be a helpful addition to your current methods of treatment.

If you’re considering using a weighted blanket for your child, discuss your individual needs and concerns with your doctor to figure out whether a weighted blanket might be helpful for your child. .

Considering purchasing a weighted blanket? Remember that this doesn’t replace other techniques and healthy habits that have been proven to improve sleep quality. These include:

  • Daily exercise.
  • Ensuring a pleasant sleep environment.
  • Avoiding caffeinated beverages in the afternoon.
  • Limiting screen time before bed.

Having trouble catching some Zzz’s? Find a sleep specialist near you.

About the author

Marissa Hammers, MD
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Marissa Hammers, MD, is a pediatric resident at Baylor Scott & White McLane Children’s Medical Center.

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Weighing in on weighted blankets: Do they really help anxiety?