You may have seen an advert for a weighted blanket, or seen a reference to one in a blog or forum. They’re supposed to help with sleep, and some people claim a lot more besides. But what is really going on? Do they work? And are they safe?
What is a weighted blanket?
Weighted blankets are specifically designed to be much heavier than normal bedding. Normally they have beads sewn into them internally, and typically one for an adult will weigh around 10 kilos. The suggestion from their manufacturers is that they should weigh around one tenth of your bodyweight, plus one kilo more.
Can a weighted blanket help me to sleep?
The idea behind weighted blankets is that they provide what is called ‘deep-pressure touch’. The body’s response to deep-pressure touch is typically to release tow neuro-transmitters, serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin, among other things, helps to regulate and improve our mood, and dopamine provides us with a sense of pleasure. Advocates of weighted blankets believe that the increased levels of these neuro-transmitters promotes better and easier sleep.
What is the evidence for the effect of weighted blankets on sleep?
There have only been comparatively small studies made in this area. The results can be difficult to assess, partly through small numbers and partly through not using a control group or blind trials. They also differ between studies, some showing no improvements at all from weighted blankets, and some showing measurable improvements.
However, these were normally seen in people with very high levels of anxiety to begin with, who did see a measurable reduction. Whether their improvement was due to increased serotonin and dopamine, or due to the placebo effect, can’t be proved either way.
Can a weighted blanket help with anything other than better sleep?
The suggested benefits of the increased serotonin and dopamine aren’t just limited to better sleep. Weighted blankets are also advertised as treatment, or even cures, for anxiety, stress, obsessive compulsive disorder, and even PTSD. There is however no compelling evidence that they are of any benefit to people with these conditions. In fact, in some people the weight of the blanket increases their level of anxiety.
I’ve seen a weighted blanket recommended for children with autism – does it help?
Many people with autism or other sensory-processing disorders are extremely sensitive to touch. The deep-pressure touch from the weighted blanket is stated to stimulate the limbic system, enabling people to become progressively desensitised to touch. Advocates of sensory integration therapy believe that this in turn improves peoples’ abilities to regulate their emotional state, and how they express that.
The evidence in favour of weighted blankets comes from their use in occupational therapy. However, when taken out of this context, and assessed on their own, they show no effect at all. This goes both for their purported ability to help people regulate their emotions as well as their purported benefits for sleep.
I’d still like to try a weighted blanket – is it safe?
Using a weighted blanket, as long as it doesn’t exceed a tenth of your body weight plus one kilo more, is safe for adults and older teenagers. The worst risk is that you find it uncomfortable, or just of no value.
Where weighted blankets aren’t safe is with children. Two children’s deaths, one a seven month old baby, and one a nine year old boy with autism, have been linked to the use of weighted blankets. Quite simply you shouldn’t use weighted blankets with children at all.
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