Of the many unfortunate mental health-related side effects of the coronavirus pandemic, insomnia is a big one. Whether it has to do with worrying about the health of a loved one, losing our jobs or something else entirely, lying awake all night isn’t fun for anyone. Weighted blankets—which are sometimes called anxiety blankets—have long been a suggested treatment method for anxiety and insomnia, but do they work? If you’ve heard the hype, you might think so. Getting enough sleep is a challenge for many people—especially those with anxiety—so it’s only natural that we all seize on any hope for better ZZZs.
Weighted Blankets for Anxiety and Insomnia
The magic some weighted blanket converts rave about is in the feeling of light pressure against the body—to many of us, that feels good. This is why, for example, babies tend to sleep better when they are swaddled, or why many people like being under a blanket when watching television or reading—not to mention sleeping.
“Weighted blankets are popular because lying under them provides pressure that can feel very calming,” said Lynelle Schneeberg, Psy.D., a sleep psychologist and author of Become Your Child’s Sleep Coach: The Bedtime Doctor’s 5-Step Guide, Ages 3-10. “Many people do like the feeling of pressure against their body and do find this pressure to be quite relaxing.”
Weighted blankets are often targeted to children with special needs, especially those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or children who are on the autism spectrum.
“These blankets are usually targeted to adults with insomnia, who hope that these blankets will improve their sleep. They are also targeted to adults with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or dementia,” Schneeberg said.
Nowadays, you may notice weighted blankets popping up all over the place. I had the chance to test out the Tranquility weighted blanket, sold at Target, and was comfortably zonked out for hours under the plush pressure. That said, I slept that night in my chilly basement in the middle of summer, so I really think you need to be in a cooled room to sleep comfortably. After doing a little research online, I found that many weight blanket manufacturers including Tranquility offer blankets that promise to balance the temperature so you can sleep in a cozy cocoon any time of year. Other than getting a workout in while folding the blanket, I can see what all the buzz is about and will be trying it again when the nights get cooler.
Do Weighted Blankets Work?
I slept well with the blanket, but was it just a coincidence or is there truth to the claims?
Actually, there is not a lot of research proving that weighted blankets actually improve sleep, Schneeberg explains. The strongest studies are those that incorporate a control group to objectively gauge results, and those that are replicated by other researchers—not the case for evaluating weighted blankets, specifically. So the rave results are mostly in the form of personal stories. You know, the “I tried a weighted blanket and slept like a log … you should try one, too!” types of anecdotes.
Objective scientific data is lacking on the effects of weighted blankets or their effectiveness in treating sleep disorders such as insomnia, says Donna Arand, Ph.D., president of the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine.
“There are numerous anecdotal reports about the benefits of weighted blankets but no objective scientific data,” Arand notes.
A 2006 report on 32 adults found that 63 percent had reduced anxiety when using a 30-pound blanket, and 78 percent preferred the blanket because it was calming. Studies published more recently found that people wearing weighted vests had reduced sympathetic arousal after a short period of time, showing that the vest may lower our fight-or-flight response.
Weighted blankets aren’t right for everyone. First, they can cause you to get hot while you sleep, which can further disrupt your rest. They are also pricey, for the most part. If you’re a weighted blanket addict who has to travel, lugging it can be challenging (and also expensive). Though they don’t help some people, others can wind up having a hard time falling asleep without the blanket, Schneeberg says.
And adults with respiratory, circulatory or temperature-regulation problems are not good candidates, she says. A Harvard doctor blogged that anyone with sleep apnea, specifically, should not use one.
Why Are Weighted Blankets So Popular?
Lately, weighted blankets are being marketed to the general public. In fact, they are starting to pop up in stores everywhere as people search for different ways to lower anxiety.
“I definitely think that more people in general are using them. There have been so many crowdfunding campaigns for these types of blankets and the general public is now very familiar with them,” Schneeberg noted.
Testimonials and marketing efforts about the advantages of weighted blankets have increased their use among individuals without special conditions or needs, Arand said.
“The current interest in weighted blankets may reflect a fashion trend or fad but it will take more time to see if interest persists and more research to determine if there are real sleep benefits associated with using a weighted blanket,” she said.
“I know two 29-year-old female patients who bought weighted blankets because their friends recommended them, and both ladies reported they slept better with the blanket and preferred them,” Arand added. “One reported that her sleep was much less disturbed by her bed partner’s movements. However, both also said the blankets were too hot to use in the summer.”
Tips on Using a Weighted Blanket for Anxiety and Insomnia
Thinking of trying a weighted blanket for anxiety and insomnia? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Pick the right weight.
A weighted blanket should weigh about 10 percent of the person’s body weight. For example, a 150-pound person would use a 15-pound blanket, Schneeberg says. Some experts say to stick to around 12 or 15 percent of your weight.
“It is often a good idea for a person who is considering purchasing one to try sleeping under a pile of blankets or quilts first to make sure they like the sensation,” she adds.
Look for a blanket that’s constructed to evenly distribute weight, such as one with separate compartments so weighted components cannot shift completely to one side. It’s good if the blanket gives pressure fluctuations following minor movements, because it can produce a stroking-like effect that can feel comforting, says Gaby Badre, Ph.D., a sleep specialist practicing in London.
It’s useful to choose a blanket with a washable cover because the blanket itself is usually not washable, Schneeberg says. In other words, if the blanket is for someone prone to messes—your child, or even a grown adult like me who manages to spill everything the moment I get comfortable on the couch—invest in a washable cover.
Talk to your doctor.
While weighted blankets might be helpful for kids struggling with anxiety and insomnia, they are not recommended for very young children because they can be too heavy. “If a parent does want to try one for their child, it is important to make sure the proper weight is being used and to check with their child’s pediatrician before using one,” Schneeberg says.
Check to see if your child can cover and uncover him or herself at night, and lift it should the blanket fall off the bed. “If a child cannot do this independently, a parent will have to come back to the child’s bedroom at night to do this,” she says.
Skip the weight.
Give the blanket a try for four to five days before considering using a different weight, or discontinuing use, Badre says.
Like the idea of light pressure for your child but don’t think a weighted blanket is the right fit? Stretchy bed wraps are a good alternative, Schneeberg says. They fit over the entire mattress like a sock, providing pressure from compression instead of weight. The wraps are easy to wash and transport, and can keep the child from rolling out of bed.
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