Weighted blankets might not be a foreign term to you, considering their recent popularity on social media. Weighted blankets have taken over our Instagram and YouTube feeds, with both professionals in medical and health care and lifestyle influencers swearing by them. Seeing the rave from an outsider’s perspective, you might have thought to yourself, “but what are these things?” or, “okay, but how do they work?”
The short answer is: Yes! Yes, they absolutely do work and the reasons are scientific. There is a wide variety of weighted blankets available on the market, some even specifically tailored to suit different kinds of needs like anxiety, insomnia, and more.
Now that you’ve read the tl;dr let’s get into some more thorough analysis.
What are weighted blankets?
Weighted blankets, also termed anxiety blankets or gravity blankets, have been used by hospitals and therapeutic programs for a long time and have recently become mainstream. People have started to learn more about their benefits due to the better availability of healthcare information.
Weighted blankets were formerly famous for being used in a type of therapy known as Sensory Integration Therapy, which helps people with sensory disorders focus on regulating sensory experiences. From its continued use in such a field, you can guess that weighted blankets offer a calming experience to people with overstimulated systems.
That doesn’t mean you have to need a weighted blanket for medical reasons to reap its benefits. For similar reasons, the pressure exerted by a weighted blanket can help calm an anxious or overthinking mind by simulating the pressure one would feel in a warm embrace or massage.
How do weighted blankets work?
Weighted blankets come in many different types- with different color, weight, shape, or material options. They are usually filled with tiny plastic pellets or glass beads to increase their weight. Some blankets also come with extra fabric layers to further increase weight.
Weighted blankets achieve their functionality by mimicking a therapeutic technique (as mentioned previously) called “Deep Pressure Stimulation.” Originally a hands-on approach to help alleviate stress and overcome over-stimulated systems during therapy.
Weighted blankets work by helping your brain switch from your sympathetic nervous system to your parasympathetic nervous system. It is relatively easy to realize that your heart beats faster when you are stressed or overwhelmed than it does when you are calm or relaxed.
Knowing this, when you are stressed or overwhelmed, lowering your heart rate can help calm you down. Weighted blankets work by exerting a gentle, equal pressure over a large part of the body. The pressure exerted by the weighted blanket helps calm you by telling your body to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
What are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems? Well, the sympathetic nervous system can be thought of as the part of your brain that enables your “fight or flight” response and helps you be on top of your senses in case of danger.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system reduces your heart rate and blood pressure, decreasing the neurophysiological stress experience. It’s the part of your brain that tells you everything is alright, and you are safe, so you do not have to be on high alert- meaning your senses can relax. It prevents the body from overworking and helps restore it to a sense of calm.
Sometimes we feel a sense of panic when there is no real, tangible danger around. This is anxiety, and it tells our brains that something is going wrong or going to go wrong. In response to this panic, our body jumps into action by heightening our senses and making us hyper-aware of our surroundings, which in turn makes the anxiety worse- because we can’t find the source of danger, and yet we feel like it’s there.
Just because the danger isn’t tangible does not mean nothing is triggering the anxiety. We experience everyday stress that society has been normalized into experiencing. For example, deadlines, work, family responsibilities, and hidden problems that 2020 has brought to light like an economy in crisis, social injustice, war, and not to mention, a global pandemic- the list of things we cannot control and want to be able to fix goes on.
It is normal to feel overwhelmed at these obscurities, but although things may be going wrong somewhere in some part of the world, it does not mean you’re not doing your best to make your little corner of the earth a good place. Still, the sympathetic part of our brain will act up when presented with situations that drive anxiety.
So that said, it is necessary to keep your head on your shoulders as you battle all of the things the world has set in place in your effort to make it a better place to live.
Sometimes, people may also experience sensory overload or a similar condition where they cannot regulate their sensory experiences.
During those mentioned above, it is common for our sympathetic nervous system to overwork itself. This can lead to us experiencing accelerated heart rate, constricted blood vessels, dilation of pupils, goosebumps or cold shivers, increased sweating or cold sweats, escalated blood pressure, and slow digestion. Symptoms may vary for individuals and can be unique compared to the ones listed here.
When this happens, we understand that we need to calm down, but may not understand how to. Weighted blankets have helped people ground themselves when experiencing such feelings by providing a safe and non-threatening way for them to process and react to sensations.
The principle behind this working is the same as the principle behind why a hug helps you feel better when you’re overwhelmed or why a massage helps your body relax. The right size and weight of the blanket you should use is dependent on your personal needs.
Who should use a weighted blanket?
Weighted blankets are commercially available for anyone to purchase and enjoy. However, some conditions would benefit more from the use of a weighted blanket than others. Conversely, some conditions, like suffering from sleep apnea, should avoid the use of weighted blankets.
So, what are some things a weighted blanket can positively help improve?
Insomnia and Sleep Disorders
Trouble sleeping? If you find that you toss and turn for the more significant part of the night after you get into bed and then wake up tired and agitated, you might benefit significantly from using a weighted blanket.
Insomnia is a prevalent sleep disorder. Various studies have been carried out worldwide to try and round up a statistic of how much of the population deals with chronic insomnia. The numbers range from between 10 and 30 percent, all the way up to between 50 and 60 percent!
Insomnia is significantly more prevalent in older adults, females, and people in medically or mentally ill health. However, you don’t need to have diagnosed insomnia for your sleep cycle to mess up. According to Martin L. Levinson (MD, FACP, FCCP), a physician at Penn Sleep Center Cherry Hill, anything from the current day’s events or the next day’s deadlines or tests can keep you awake when you need a good night’s rest.
A weighted blanket helps your body get ready to sleep/rest by calming your heart rate and breathing so that your body is relaxed enough to get a good night’s sleep.
We’ve talked a lot about anxiety in this piece, so it’s almost intuitive that weighted blankets help alleviate it. Now, if you feel you may have an anxiety disorder, professional help is always recommended. But if you’re seeking professional help and looking for something to help calm down, you’re onto the right things. Just like calming teas and meditation, weighted blankets offer a pressure that puts your nervous system into rest mode, reducing the most dominant symptoms of anxiety.
The reason weighted blankets help with symptoms of anxiety goes back to the concept of deep pressure stimulation and how weighted blankets help simulate it.
A study taken about exploring the therapeutic effects of weighted blankets (see here for details) found that using a weighted blanket helped diminish anxiety in approximately 33% of the 32 total participants. The researchers of the study also suggest that lying down while using the weighted blanket might increase users’ ability to calm down and relieve anxiety.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Although the amount of research truly exploring the effect of weighted blankets in aiding people with ADHD is limited, few studies have similar concepts using weighted vests. The analysis performed with weighted vests (see here for details) concluded positive results for participants who used them, finding that they fidgeted less, didn’t fall off task as often, etc.
Weighted blankets are also recommended for children with ADHD (note that this means children that are older than two years old and physically able to handle the weight of the blanket). They work by helping the children activate their sense of touch, preventing them from becoming distracted by other sensory stimuli in their surroundings, like lights and sounds. This can improve their attention.
An alternative to weighted blankets is weighted vests if your kid has to be in class and does not want to have a blanket with them.
Dr. Levinson from Penn Medicine notes that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can struggle with social interaction, making things like school and other public settings more difficult for them.
There are no studies that correlate weighted blankets with directly helping people on the autism spectrum. However, it is still suggested that the same principle that allows alleviating anxiety (that is, of the weighted blanket replicating a hug or embrace) might help people with ASD improve their focus ability.
A relatively small study (see here for details) found that people with autism reacted positively to deep pressure therapy. We can therefore assume that weighted blankets may replicate that same positive effect.
Many adults suffer from chronic pain, and along with medicinal treatments and physiotherapy, a recommended at-home remedy is massage therapy.
In one study (see here for details), researchers established that massage therapy that followed a light pressure slowly moving to moderate pressure and then deep pressure might reduce pain reflexes in chronic pain patients.
With that information, it is viable that the additional pressure provided by a weighted blanket may help decrease chronic pain reflexes by helping keep the legs stationary while applying gentle pressure on them.
Another benefit of weighted blankets might be using them to help keep patients calm during medical or dental procedures. A study was conducted in 2016 (see here for details) that gave participants who were experiencing wisdom tooth extraction weighted blankets.
Researchers noted that participants with weighted blankets felt less anxiety compared to the participants without them.
A follow-up study conducted on adults, in which the participants were undergoing a molar extraction, noted that the participants who used weighted blankets experienced reduced anxiety symptoms than those that didn’t.
A smaller, perhaps less serious/intense thing that weighted blankets help with is mild snoring. Weighted blankets also help people stop snoring (as long as the snoring isn’t too loud or heavy).
Other things weighted blankets are known to be beneficial for are:
– Restless legs
– Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Who should not use a weighted blanket?
With all the benefits of weighted blankets, there are precautions to using them. In fact, in certain conditions, it’s best not to use them at all. Although there are few risks associated with weighted blankets, this does not mean the chances are non-existent.
Babies or Very Elderly People
For one, manufacturers of weighted blankets say that they are not meant to be used by infants, or any children under two years old, for that matter. It is also advised to pick out weighted blankets (if necessary) with discretion if your child is older than 2.
This is due to the risk of suffocation as kids may not be strong enough to get out of the blanket if they get it over their heads, or something similar. Always consult a trusted pediatrician before having your kid try a weighted blanket.
The same concept applies to anybody. This is also why older adults who may not be strong enough to move the blanket on their own should also refrain from using a weighted blanket. If you feel that the older adults in your life might benefit from a weighted blanket, but are unsure whether or not they should be using one, do not be afraid to contact your doctor for advice.
Remember that you need to get out of a blanket weighted on your own as a safety precaution. If you fear that you may not be able to, consider an alternative to weighted blankets instead, or opt for deep pressure stimulation massages/pressure stimulation therapy.
Obstructive sleep apnea causes disrupted breathing during sleep. It is known that weighted blankets help regulate breathing. Still, professionals are hesitant to recommend any weighted blankets to people with breathing or asthmatic disorders, or other respiratory problems, due to the risk of suffocation in sleep.
Similar to why professionals don’t recommend weighted blankets for sleep apnea, they also avoid doing so for asthma patients. Asthma causes difficulty breathing and can cause irregular breathing during sleep.
Claustrophobia is the fear of closed spaces, and the feeling of tightness that the weighted blanket creates might be triggering for claustrophobic people.
Fragile Skin / Skin Rashes
Because the weighted blanket applies pressure to the body, it isn’t easy to move around under it. People with susceptible skin or open wounds might have their skin rub up against the outer fabric, which may irritate their skin.
Other conditions that may not be very suited to using weighted blankets are:
– Unregulated blood pressure
– Circulation Problems
Or any other condition that restricts blood flow. Cardiac and Respiratory problems may feel worsened when pressure is applied to the body. If you have a condition that restricts blood flow, like diabetes, a weighted blanket might limit blood flow.
Different weighted blanket fillings
Weighted blankets come with different fillings, depending on the price and quality of the blanket and its weight. The most commonly used filling is plastic poly pellets, which generally act as fillers in children’s stuffed toys. The weight depends on the weight of the pellets. Their texture is usually concealed using soft fabrics like mink or fleece or packing the blanket with layers of cotton.
Another standard filling is micro glass beads. These typically fill more expensive weighted blankets. They are smoother than plastic pellets, making them a better choice for incredibly sensory individuals who don’t like the plastic pellets’ texture. Glass beads are also environmentally friendly compared to the plastic pellets mentioned prior.
Some other fillings, not as common perhaps, are steel shot beads. These typically act as fillings in heavier blankets. They are very smooth, so their texture is not abrasive and very easily concealed. They are also heavy, so the chances of them leaking out of the blanket seams are minimal.
Less common fillings are sand and grains like rice or corn barley. It is possible to get a comfortable weight with these, but they’re not crowd-favorite fillers. Sand tends to clump, and washing it would be a feat to achieve- because wet sand is difficult to dry, and the blanket could lose its shape. Also, if either of these fillings leaks, the mess would be a story to clean up.
Which weight is best for you?
We recommend that you consult a physician for a more accurate idea of the kind of weighted blanket you would most benefit from, but as a general rule, a weighted blanket should weigh between 5 to 10 percent of your body weight. Also, more intuitively, it should fit the size of your bed.
Weighted blankets are available in weights ranging from 5 to 30 pounds. Anything heavier might restrict your movement. If you can’t move under your weighted blanket, you should look for a lighter one.
For children that weigh from 20 to 70 pounds, a small weighted blanket weighing from 3 to 8 pounds is a good recommendation.
For children that weigh from 30 to 130 pounds, a medium-weighted blanket weighing from 5 to 15 pounds is the ideal recommendation.
For older adults, professionals recommend a small or medium-weighted blanket weighing from 5 to 8 pounds.
Remember, too heavy is a thing, and it is terrible for you.
Other factors that may influence your choice of blanket
Size is another factor you may want to consider. Companies manufacture blankets of varying sizes to fit different bed sizes or couch sizes, or even portable blankets if you don’t want to take them to bed. They want to use them while relaxing and awake.
Professionals recommend that you use a weighted blanket made of relatively breathable fabric material, like cotton, so that you do not overheat or feel uncomfortable during extended periods of use. Also, avoid fabrics known to cause skin irritation, or any materials you know might cause allergic reactions.
Suppose you tend to get anxious in public settings or do not necessarily need the calming effect during sleep. In that case, there are alternatives to weighted blankets that provide just about the same benefits.
Probably more common among fitness enthusiasts and CrossFit trainers, weighted vests are a good alternative if you want to experience the pressure therapy of weighted blankets in a different form.
They have proved to be a good alternative for children taking classes, for example.
Say you want to experience the benefits of weighted blankets when at work, or during a commute, or while traveling. In such cases, it makes sense that carrying a whole weighted blanket around isn’t too feasible.
Another portable alternative to weighted blankets for on the go usage are weighted lap pads. They provide you with the same pressure stimulation calming effect, just on a smaller scale.
Using a lap pad might not be as effective as a weighted blanket for sleeplessness, but that is not their intended purpose. The things that a lap pad can help with include:
– Focus and Attention Span
– Productivity / Preventing falling off tasks
– Stillness / Shaky legs
– Calming / Stress
Lap pads also come in a variety of sizes, depending on the user’s needs. They are usually filled with the same fillings as weighted blankets are, and the weight distribution is pretty similar, too, if the lap pads use quilted squares.
The recommended weight of lap pads is much lower than their blanket counterparts because they cover such little surface area on your body. The suggested weight is around 2 pounds.
Some manufacturers create and market heavier weighted lap pads, but your lap pad’s weight must stay less than 5 % of your body weight. This means that, for a person weighing 170 pounds, the lap pad should weigh in at between 2 and 8 pounds.
Lap pads are an excellent alternative for students or therapeutic patients in an environment where they might have to sit for long periods.
We understand that finding relief and peace is notably tricky if you regularly struggle with anxiety. Although appropriate treatments by therapists and concerned counselors are the long term cure, using a weighted blanket can definitely help you ground yourself when you feel ill at ease.
Weighted blankets have been used in pressure stimulation therapy to help people feel calmer for a very long time, without any adverse side-effects. So even when you’re well on your way to minimizing your anxiety using some top cognitive-behavioral tools, using a weighted blanket could offer additional relief.
The efficacy of weighted blankets lies in their ability to replicate contact, like a warm hug or embrace, or a massage or cuddling that makes the user feel calmer and safer. In this way, the weighted/gravity/anxiety blanket helps a sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight system) in overdrive calm back down by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest system) then works to reduce anxiety symptoms that you’re feeling.
The bottom line is, if you are in search of a convenient and safe way to help minimize anxiety, improve sleep quality, better your focus, or decrease fidgeting, a weighted blanket might be the solution you’re looking for.
If you choose to start using a weighted blanket, it is a good idea that you consult your doctor first to ensure that there aren’t any reasons for you not to use one, and also to confirm what weight of blanket you should be using. In any case, the total weight of your weighted blanket mustn’t ever exceed 10 % of your body weight.
Please note that none of the information provided in this article is meant to substitute for a physician’s professional advice. If you feel like your anxiety is out of your control or feel like you are experiencing sensory overload or ADHD symptoms, consult a doctor you trust and get their expert opinion.
The research studies mentioned in this article are referenced in the following section in chronological order as they appear in the text. The studies can also be accessed by following the links provided in the text.
1. Mullen, Brian, Tina Champagne, Sundar Krishnamurty, Debra Dickson, and Robert X. Gao. “Exploring the safety and therapeutic effects of deep pressure stimulation using a weighted blanket.” Occupational Therapy in Mental Health 24, no. 1 (2008): 65-89.
2. Lin, Hung-Yu, Posen Lee, Wen-Dien Chang, and Fu-Yuan Hong. “Effects of weighted vests on attention, impulse control, and on-task behavior in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.” American journal of occupational therapy 68, no. 2 (2014): 149-158.
3. Roberts, Langdon. “Effects of patterns of pressure application on resting electromyography during massage.” International journal of therapeutic massage & bodywork 4, no. 1 (2011): 4.
4. Bestbier, Lana, and Tim I. Williams. “The immediate effects of deep pressure on young people with autism and severe intellectual difficulties: Demonstrating individual differences.” Occupational therapy international 2017 (2017).
5. Chen, Hsin-Yung, Hsiang Yang, Ling-Fu Meng, Pei-Ying Sarah Chan, Chia-Yen Yang, and Hsin-Ming Chen. “Effect of deep pressure input on parasympathetic systems in patients with wisdom tooth surgery.” Journal of the Formosan Medical Association 115, no. 10 (2016): 853-859.