Weighted Blankets: A Comprehensive Guide
Have you ever had one of those nights that it feels impossible to fall asleep? Maybe there is a lot on your mind, or maybe you can’t find a perfectly comfy position. Or maybe you’re exhausted, but you just can’t seem to drift off. Sleep problems are more common than you might think!
If you go to bed most nights like you’re going into battle, it’s time for a new tactic. Sleeping medications, special sleepy teas, herbal supplements… those are all well and good, but they just help you drift off. They don’t actually do anything to help you get restful, quality sleep! That is the number one reason weighted blankets are different than all those other sleep aids — a weighted blanket can actually help the quality of sleep you get all night long!
What, exactly, is a weighted blanket? And why do I need one?
A weighted blanket — also called a stress blanket, gravity blanket, or comfort blanket — is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a blanket filled with small weights, usually tiny plastic or glass beads, which are dispersed across the blanket and held in place by sewn-in segments. The idea behind a weighted blanket is, essentially, that the even distribution of weight can provide comfort down to a physiological level, which is why these blankets can help you to get better, more restful sleep.
The weighted blanket started off as a therapy tool and were (and still are) prescribed by psychologists/therapists. They started off as a tool to help those with anxiety, sensory processing disorders, and other similar mental health concerns. Over time, users have found a great many other benefits to sleeping and relaxing under a weighted blanket, including help for things like chronic fibromyalgia pain and restless leg syndrome. The primary reason weighted blankets are so beneficial is because they help trigger physiological responses by way of Deep Pressure Touch therapy.
Deep Pressure Touch Therapy
Have you ever had a hug that was so great that you stepped away feelings more relaxed? Or what about the feeling of waking up on a winter morning, buried under a bunch of blankets, and feeling wonderfully peaceful? Those sensations are, essentially, what Deep Pressure Touch therapy aims to provide. This modality, also called Deep Pressure Stimulation, is a way of relaxing the nervous system — which provides a deeper, more lasting feeling of calm than, say, drinking a cup of calming tea.
The way Deep Pressure Touch therapy works to provide relaxation and calming benefits is because of how it impacts your brain and nervous system. In short, Deep Pressure Stimulation urges the body to make the switch from running with the sympathetic nervous system at the forefront, and moving the parasympathetic nervous system into control of the body. The sympathetic nervous system is your body’s “alert” nervous system. It is responsible for the “fight or flight” reaction and helps your body make decisions, especially during stressful situations.
However, if your body does not get enough sensory input to switch over to the parasympathetic nervous system on occasion, your body doesn’t get enough rest and you can feel like you are constantly on edge. For those who suffer from anxiety or sensory processing disorders, like kids with Autism, the body may have a harder time putting the sympathetic nervous system to rest, which can amplify those feelings of stress. For many with sensory processing disorders, insomnia, anxiety, and other similar concerns, the body has a harder time switching to the parasympathetic nervous system; not only that, but it also takes their bodies less of a trigger to re-activate the sympathetic nervous system, even when calm and relaxed.
Activating the parasympathetic nervous system is important for a lot of functions throughout the body. Not only does the parasympathetic nervous system help the body feel calm and relaxed, but it is also responsible for the physical relaxation of muscles, improving circulation, slowing the heart rate, and so on. All of these physiological responses can then lead to benefits like improved sleep, better focus, a decrease in anxiety, less sensitivity to sensory stimuli, and more. Of course, when the body does not get enough time with the parasympathetic nervous system in control, the opposite responses can occur. The more time the body spends with the sympathetic nervous system in control, especially over protracted periods, the more anxious and hypersensitive to stimuli the body can get. This, in turn, affects sleep, which can build up a cycle that is difficult to break. Deep Pressure Touch therapy is one set of methods to help push the body toward the parasympathetic nervous system and help boost physiological relaxation.
How to Get Deep Pressure Stimulation
Deep Pressure Stimulation therapy is a collection of different techniques designed to send signals to the body that help it make that switch over to the parasympathetic nervous system. A weighted blanket is pretty ideal for providing Deep Pressure Stimulation because it adds gentle, even weight across the whole body. In doing so, that even, gentle weight helps tell the body that there is nothing that needs the “fight or flight” response at that moment, and so the parasympathetic nervous system can take over and give the body some beneficial relaxation time.
A weighted blanket is just one way of providing Deep Pressure Stimulation therapy. Other options include a specific style of massage called deep pressure touch, compression clothing, joint compression, weighted vests and lap weights, and specially trained therapy dogs.
What’s in a weighted blanket?
The unique design of a weighted blanket is what gives it all the benefits it can provide. But what makes a weighted blanket so different? It comes down to a couple of key elements in their construction. As you shop around, you will find different designs, but there are a few things that will be the same across the board because the goals of any weighted blanket are to provide comfort and weight in such a way that they will activate that deep touch pressure feeling.
The blanket itself is generally made from a soft but durable cotton fabric. The idea there is to provide fabric that is durable enough to hold up against long-term use, but still soft enough that you want to snuggle up with your weighted blanket everyday. The other big factor is the weave of the fabric itself. Cotton and cotton-blend fabrics are the best option because you can get a nice, tight weave so that none of the filling will come out. But, the tighter a weave is, the hotter the blanket can feel, so a cotton or cotton-blend is an ideal fabric because you can get a tighter weave that is still nice and breathable. That way, you can use your cotton weighted blanket even on hotter days because it will be breathable enough to be comfortable.
The other major element to a weighted blanket is, of course, the weight. There are plenty of options out there for how to add extra weight to these blankets. The most common options include:
- Plastic microbeads or pellets
- Micro glass beads
- Additional fabric
- Sand or small, smooth pebbles
- Dried foods like pasta, rice, or beans
- Some combination of the above
The general idea is to add weight to the blanket using materials that are small enough that the weight can be spread across the whole blanket. They would be far less beneficial if all the weight was centered in one or two areas! Ideally, the best weighted blanket fillings are small enough that they can give the blanket an evenly dispersed total weight. The other big factors to consider are long-term care and personal comfort. For example, using cotton fluff or other fabric as a filler is a good, sustainable option, but it makes those blankets toasty! If you're looking for a weighted blanket you can use year-round, this may not be the best option. Sand can be a tough option because it's so fine that it can slip through the weave unless the fabric is a very tight knit — which, again, means these options may not be great for warmer days. And, finally, dried foods may seem like a sustainable and economical way to add weight to a blanket. However, they aren't a great option when it comes time to wash your weighted blanket! Putting it through the wash can make that dried rice or pasta turn into a sludgy mess. For year-round, long-term use, we recommend sticking to weighted blankets filled with small plastic or glass beads. In either case, glass and plastic microbeads are small enough that they can be distributed easily but large enough that they aren't likely to escape the confines of the blanket.
Pay Attention to Weighted Blanket Structure
When it comes to the best weighted blankets, there's more to it than good fabric and good filling. Those are both necessary components, but the true difference between any average weighted blanket and a great weighted blanket is how those elements come together. Specifically, the best weighted blankets are usually divided into smaller segments, almost like a quilt. This will create little pockets, which will separate and contain the filling. Without some kind of division, all of the filling would slip to the sides or the bottom of the blanket, where it won't do much good. By dividing the blanket into sections and filling each section individually, the weight will stay spread across the entire blanket and provide that Deep Pressure Stimulation therapy from top to bottom, left to right.
Why weighted blankets?
We've already touched on this a bit with the description of the nervous system and how weighted blankets offer Deep Pressure Touch therapy, but let's dig into exactly why weighted blankets are so great and what benefits they can provide. In broad, general terms, a weighted blanket provides therapeutic benefits that brings the parasympathetic nervous system into primary control. What that translates to is a physiological relaxation from head to toe, from the inside out.
Think about it this way: when you have a cup of calming herbal tea, it can be a good way to calm your mind and slow down, which can help push the sympathetic nervous system to the background. But it's not necessarily a lasting, physical relaxation. As soon as that cup of tea is gone, the worries of the day can creep back in and your parasympathetic nervous system may get pushed to the background as your sympathetic nervous system prepares to react. That cup of tea was a good momentary relaxation tool, but it doesn't actually impact your nervous system; it's mostly just a mental calming tool. On the other hand, a weighted blanket actually taps into the body's physiological responses. By providing even, gentle pressure across the body, that Deep Pressure Stimulation therapy taps into your body's physiological response and triggers relaxation. The heart rate will slow down, the pupils will dilate more, the bronchial tubes in the lungs will constrict more, and even the bladder will contract more. Did you know that the digestive processes basically stop when your sympathetic nervous system is in control? It's true! Your body needs time when it feels relaxed, with the parasympathetic nervous system in control, to do something as straightforward as digesting your meals.
So, why weighted blankets? Psychologists use a lot of different sensory activities and tools to help the body calm down in a physiological sense. A great many of those tools and activities call for active participation though, which means they may not always be useful or even possible. A weighted blanket is one of the most valuable sensory processing tools because it's a totally passive one. You can use it while sleeping at night, while relaxing on the couch after work, or even at your desk. That gentle pressure can provide the Deep Pressure Stimulation therapy pretty much anywhere you need it. Just laying a weighted blanket across your lap can help calm anxiety, soothe overwhelmed feelings from sensory processing disorders, and more. And, when used to sleep under, it can help with things like insomnia and restless leg syndrome, so you can get better, more restful sleep.
Weighted blankets aren't just for adults, either. Assuming you find the right weight level, they can also be a great option for kids who have sensory processing issues, ADD, and so on. They provide the same benefits, no matter what your age. In fact, weighted blankets are most commonly prescribed for children with autism, anxiety, and other similar concerns. But, as with adults, kids weighted blankets aren't just for children with autism. They're great for any child who could use a little help relaxing and giving their body more time to calm down and process sensory input.
What the research says
Weighted blankets have been prescribed by psychologists for a while. They got their start specifically as a sensory tool to help children with autism and behavioral disorders, according to Dr. Cristina Cusin of Harvard Medical School. They are also commonly used in psychiatric units because they are a good, passive way of triggering the parasympathetic nervous system and calming the body. Basically, the weighted blanket simulates a comforting hug, but in a way that taps into physiological responses, not just mental ones. Of course, it is harder to track the specific impacts of using weighted blankets since the responses are both mental and physical. For example, we can track and see how someone's pulse is affected before using a weighted blanket, then after snuggling under one. When it comes to mental benefits, like tracking how weighted blankets help with anxiety or insomnia, studies rely more heavily on individual accounts as well as things like brainwave readouts.
One of the biggest questions about weighted blankets is whether or not they really work, and the short answer is that we have a lot of personal accounts that say yes, but it's hard to provide specific metrics about how much. There are studies that point to benefits, but there are no statistics about "using a weighted blanket for X minutes a day to experience Y and Z benefits." There are studies that look into how safe weighted blankets are for use, and what benefits can be provided, but this isn't like taking a painkiller to achieve immediate, specific results. You may need to use your weighted blanket every night for a week before you start noticing the benefits, or you may feel like you get better, more restful sleep the first night. All we can really point to are the physiological effects of using a weighted blanket, and how research suggestions that provides Deep Pressure Touch therapy.
What weighted blankets can help with:
We've described a lot of the physiological ways that using a weighted blanket can impact the body — but what does that mean in real world terms? Calming the body and triggering the parasympathetic nervous system can have a lot of different effects. Yes, it slows down the heartbeat and encourages the body to activate digestive processes, but there are a lot of other ways weighted blankets can help! Those include:
Sleep is an incredibly important part of everyone's daily routine — and it's also the hardest for a lot of individuals. Whether your mind races so hard it's hard to fall asleep, or your body doesn't want to stay asleep longer than half an hour at a time, sleep problems like insomnia plague more than 40 million Americans. The firm, gentle pressure of a weighted blanket provides that "hug" blanket feelings and stimulates Deep Touch Stimulation benefits, which can help calm the mind and the body enough that you can fall asleep faster. Even better, that gentle pressure is enough to keep the body calm all night, so you can get more restful sleep too!
Restless Leg Syndrome
Along the same lines, weighted blankets can also help folks who might not sleep well because of restless leg syndrome. The gentle weight of the blanket is enough to weigh down your limbs without making you feel constricted. You can still roll over and wiggle when sleeping under a weighted blanket, but that gentle pressure can help keep your limbs still so you can sleep better.
Anxiety and stress are both incredibly common issues that plague millions of Americans, and not just adults! Anxiety is often a response to the body being in a "fight or flight" state for too long, or having a hard time switching from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic. Using a weighted blanket helps push the parasympathetic nervous system into control, which helps calm the body. For folks with anxiety or stress, using a weighted blanket gives that comforting "hug" feeling for as long as you need it. This also gives the body more of a break, which can help over time because the body won't jump over to the sympathetic nervous system quite as fast. It means that ongoing, regular use of a weighted blanket can give you better response time to anxiety-inducing triggers, and give you the chance to implement other self-soothing methods when anxiety comes creeping in. Similarly, when the body has more time to rest with the parasympathetic nervous system in control, the body and mind are better able to handle anxiety and stress from various stimuli, which means you can feel less stress and anxiety in the long run.
Sensory Processing Disorder/Autism
Many kids and adults with autism have a harder time processing sensory stimuli — but plenty of people without autism can also struggle with sensory processing issues. Weighted blankets are one of the more common options for anyone struggling with sensory processing issues, in large part because they are a passive, low-sensory tool. And, since anxiety is often a tag-along side condition for those with sensory processing issues, the weighted blanket does double duty by helping un-jumble sensory overload and while also working to calm anxiety.
Restlessness and lack of focus are common hallmarks of ADD and ADHD. For some, that may mean trouble actually completing a task, and for others, a more general restless antsiness. In any case, it can be hard for individuals with ADD or ADHD to quiet their minds and bodies enough to focus. A weighted blanket can help with that — and no, not in the sense that a weighted blanket would weigh that person down to force them to be still. In many cases, anxiety and poor sleep can make ADD/ADHD symptoms worse. A weighted blanket may not directly help with those symptoms, but it can help calm anxiety and improve sleep, so that ADD/ADHD symptoms are not as strong.
Fibromyalgia is an interesting form of chronic pain because, unlike arthritis, it is not centered in the joints or caused by issues with the nervous system. Researchers think that fibromyalgia may actually be pain signals getting amplified by the way the brain processes pain signals. Like ADD/ADHD, fibromyalgia symptoms themselves aren’t directly treated by a weighted blanket. However, poor sleep, anxiety, and low serotonin levels can make fibromyalgia symptoms worse. Using a weighted blanket can help ensure you get better sleep, and by promoting the switch to the parasympathetic nervous system, using a weighted blanket can also help the body produce more serotonin.
As a general caveat, there are a few sets of people who should not use a weighted blanket. If you have sleep apnea or other respiratory issues, be sure to talk to your doctor first because a weighted blanket could potentially disrupt nighttime breathing more. Pregnant women should consult with their physician before use as well, and if approved, consider a lighter blanket.
Choosing your weighted blanket
Choosing a weighted blanket is generally pretty straightforward. The basic formula is that you want the weight of your blanket to be equal to about 10% of your overall weight. So, someone who weighs 150 lbs would need a 15 lb weighted blanket. Likewise, a child at 90 lbs would probably do best with a 10 lb blanket. If you and your spouse/partner share a bed, you’ll want to do a bit of math. Don’t forget that the weight of the blanket would be shared between you. However, the weight doesn’t need to be an exact 10% of the total weight between both of you, so a 20 or 25 lb weighted blanket will make more sense depending on your personal preferences. Elderly individuals can benefit from a weighted blanket as well, but may want to consider a lighter weight, just to avoid any potential constriction during sleep.
The other big factor to consider is what type of weighted blanket cover you want. The weighted blanket cover is just as important, because using one means you don’t have to actually wash the blanket itself — which is good news since most heavier weighted blankets could throw off the balance of your washing machine’s tub. We recommend getting a couple of weighted blanket covers for each blanket, so you can easily swap between them instead of waiting until the cover is clean and dry to use the blanket again.
Here at Density Comfort, we offer an array of different weighted blanket covers because we want your weighted blanket to be the ideal level of coziness for your preferences. For kids, especially children with autism or sensory processing disorders, be mindful of which sensations are going to be the most beneficial. Maybe that means a Minky weighted blanket cover, or maybe a soft bamboo cover is better for their sensory needs.
Weighted Blankets for Pets
Another common question about weighted blankets is whether or not they can be used for pets. They can! We are big fans of using weighted blankets for pets that have anxiety or other similar issues because your four-legged friend can use the weighted blanket to self-soothe when you aren’t there to put on a thunder jacket or provide other comfort. A dog anxiety blanket works the same way weighted blankets work for humans; it helps provide that Deep Pressure Touch therapy, which helps to put the parasympathetic nervous system in control. If you have a furry friend who freaks out during storms, or who has some serious separation anxiety, a dog anxiety blanket gives your pet the tools to soothe itself.
It may take a bit of time to teach your pet to use their weighted blanket. If you’re home, you can set the blanket on or near you, then lay the blanket over them when they settle down next to you. However, be sure you don’t swaddle your pet; they will need to be able to get out from under the blanket freely so they don’t feel trapped or claustrophobic. Once they have positive associations with the blanket, you can set it on their bed or preferred snuggle spot and teach them to get under the blanket on their own. That way, if something happens to bring on anxiety, your pet can use their dog anxiety blanket to self-soothe and de-stress.
As with people, you’ll want your pet weighted blanket to be around 10% of your pet’s weight. Be careful for smaller pets, as a 10 lb dog may find it uncomfortable to have too much weight on them. The true test is that your dog should be able to get out from underneath the weighted blanket without help.
One Important Warning
If your dog likes to chew, you’ll want to be careful with giving them a weighted blanket. The tiny beads that provide weight can be a potential health hazard if they happen to chew a hole and eat the filling. Watch your four-legged friend carefully when you first introduce the weighted blanket, and keep an eye over time to make sure they don’t try to chew it. If they do, you may want to only bring the blanket out when you’re available to keep an eye on them.