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Weighted Blankets: Worth a Try?

28 December 2020

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Weighted blankets may well help ease anxiety, create relaxation and promote sounder sleep for adults, but using them with your children is something best discussed with their pediatrician in advance. 

Weighted blankets have become popular in the mainstream in the last few years and are just what they sound like: heavy blankets, generally 15 pounds or more. The weight comes from pellets, chains, or balls that are either woven into the blanket's fabric or inserted in little pockets throughout. Advertising claims all sorts of benefits: better sleep, less anxiety, sweatless nights, excellent naps. 

The theory behind weighted blankets is that they, by their very heaviness, soothe us into slumber, easing anxiety and wrapping us in a blissfully firm hug. They've been used in sensory integration therapy for many years. The science behind why they work is called deep touch therapy or deep pressure therapy.

Deep pressure therapy works by stimulating the release of two neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, which help make people feel more relaxed. Deep pressure therapy may also stimulate parts of our limbic system, the brain's network for processing emotion and fear. 

Deep pressure therapy has been around in a formalized way for decades. Massage, for example, has been around for thousands of years. Although not exactly the same, massage is another modality in which varying degrees of pressure are used to relax the body and alleviate pain. 

If we think about the feeling of wellbeing and relaxation we experience waking up on a chilly morning under a heavy pile of blankets, the idea that a weighted blanket could be comforting starts to make perfect sense. 

In 1965, somewhere between the origination of massage and the current weighted blanket trend, a woman named Temple Grandin (you may remember reading about her or the movie starring Claire Danes), one one of the pioneers of deep pressure therapy, moved the proverbial needle with a device that may be the ultimate in self-care. Grandin, herself autistic, invented a calming device that worked similarly to the weighted blankets of today. She called it a hug machine.  

When Grandin was a child, she realized that she instinctively sought out deep pressure therapy, but being hugged or held was too much stimulation. On a visit to her aunt, who lived on a cattle farm, she watched cattle being vaccinated in a device called a squeeze chute. Some cattle immediately calmed down when the pressure was applied. That was a moment of clarity for her. The deep pressure which she knew would calm her could be applied by a machine! So she invented one.

Grandin's device was revolutionary but cumbersome. A person had to get inside the machine and stay there for a duration of time. Initially, Grandin stayed in her machine for 15 minutes, eventually she calibrated it to allow her to use it for an hour and a half at a time. Hug machines have been modified over the years and are used for treating or relieving discomfort and anxiety for people with autism, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other conditions. 

Today, weighted blankets, a much more portable and affordable option, are used therapeutically, but they're also worth trying for people simply looking for a little comfort. And they're trending right now.

Our verdict? If a weighted blanket sounds good to you, and you're an adult, give it a try! If you are thinking about helping calm a child in your life, consult their doctor first. 

How to calculate your blanket weight:  if you're thinking about buying a weighted blanket for an adult, it should typically be about 10 percent of the user's body weight. People vary in exactly how heavy or light they prefer the blankets to be, but 10 percent is a good place to start. A weighted blanket should never restrict your ability to move. It shouldn't be so heavy that it feels unmanageable. It also should not trap heat, so make sure the fabric breathes. 

If possible, try before you buy to find what's comfortable for you.


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