Toddlers have long used “blankies” to help them feel secure, dry tears, and fall asleep quickly.
Now, some adults with insomnia, depression, and anxiety are rediscovering that feeling of security — for a price – in the form of weighted blankets.
But can a little extra weight really help you sleep better?
Leslie Kosco, 56, an oncology nurse in Indianapolis, thinks so. For the past 3 months, she has snuggled under her light gray, 20-pound weighted blanket. She bought it after reading that it could improve sleep and lower anxiety.
“It gives me the feeling that someone is hugging me, and making me feel calmer,” she says. “I think my sleep is better.” The anxiety? “Well, you know,” she laughs. She works with cancer patients, and she and her partner have an active 9-year-old.
She has no idea how the blanket works but is happy it does.
What Is a Weighted Blanket?
Weighted blankets are usually filled with plastic pellets to add weight, ranging from about 4 to 25 pounds. You pick the heaviness of the blanket based on your own weight. Prices range from about $120 to $249 or more.
People compare a weighted blanket’s “hug” to the feeling of the X-ray ”apron” the dentist puts on you, says David Fuchs, CEO of BlanQuil, one of the makers of weighted blankets.
Other companies include Gravity Blanket, Mosaic Weighted Blankets, and SensaCalm. Fuchs launched his product in December 2017, after he searched for something to help his adult daughter improve her sleep.
“It secures you in one place,” Fuchs says. “It seems to help people sleep by the calming effect of feeling like they are being held.”
Mike Grillo, managing director of Gravity Blanket, says they shipped more than 50,000 weighted blankets in 2017. That was after the Brooklyn-based startup raised $4.7 million on Kickstarter from late April to late May, 2017.
Laura LeMond says she founded Mosaic Weighted Blankets in 2010 after designing a blanket to meet her own needs for better sleep.
She says the trend has taken off in the past 2 years. At least a half-dozen companies sell them now.
What the Research Shows
Grillo says there aren’t many independent studies of the blankets for adults that are reviewed by independent researchers and published in reputable medical journals.
In one study funded by the blanket makers, Swedish researchers found that 31 men and women with moderate insomnia who used the blankets for 2 weeks reported a calmer night’s sleep with fewer movements. They believe the blankets helped them sleep more comfortably and securely, and they had higher-quality sleep.
Researchers have looked at how the blankets affect mental health patients. A study from 2015 found that after 32 adults used a 30-pound blanket, 63% reported lower anxiety and 78% preferred the weighted blanket to calm down.
Weighted blankets offer deep pressure stimulation, a form of touch pressure that feels like a firm hug, a massage, or swaddling. While research on weighted blankets is sparse, deep pressure stimulation has been found to calm adults and children with anxiety, autism, and attention difficulties, researchers say.
A Doctor Weighs In
Raj Dasgupta, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California and a spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, says the blankets may help people with chronic pain sleep better, as well as those with anxiety or depression.
It gives me the feeling that someone is hugging me, and making me feel calmer.
Leslie Kosco of Indianapolis
“It’s like having the best hug for a long period of time,” he says. And, he says, it may be ”a good alternative to life-long sedative hypnotic medications (sleeping pills) at night.”
But he cautions that the weighted blanket is not the cure-all for improving sleep.
“You also have to pay attention to the foundation of good sleep hygiene,” he says. That means using the bedroom only for sleep and sex, turning off electronics before bedtime, and keeping the lighting, sounds, and temperature conducive to sleep.
While some research has looked at 30-pound blankets, there is no data behind the “right fit.” The companies suggest you pick one that is about 10% of your body weight so it will not be too heavy, says LeMond of Mosaic. “And for kids, it’s 10% of body weight plus 1-2 pounds,” she says.
Grillo similarly suggests a target of 7% to 12% of your body weight.
Article: Seeking Better Sleep Under a Weighted Blanket
Leslie Kosco, 56, oncology nurse, Indianapolis.
Mike Grillo, managing director, Gravity Blanket.
David Fuchs, CEO, BlanQuil.
Laura LeMond, founder, Mosaic Weighted Blankets.
Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders: “Positive Effects of a Weighted Blanket on Insomnia.”
Occupational Therapy in Mental Health: “Exploring the Safety and Therapeutic Effects of Deep Pressure Stimulation Using a Weighted Blanket.”
Consumer Reports: “Sheets Buying Guide,” “Higher Thread Count Doesn’t Guarantee Better Sleep.”
Harvard Health Publishing: “What type of mattress is best for people with low back pain?”
Mayo Clinic: “Pregnancy week by week,” “Sleep Apnea.”
National Sleep Foundation: “Find Out What You Really Should Be Wearing to Bed,” “Hear,” “Touch,” “The wrong pillow can be a real pain in the neck — not to mention a barrier to a good night’s sleep. So find the right fit,” “How to Choose Your Ideal Sheets,” “Americans’ Bedrooms Are Key To Better Sleep According To New National Sleep Foundation Poll,” “Choosing a Mattress: Everything You Need to Know.”
The Better Sleep Council: “Starfish or Freefall? What Your Sleep Position Can Tell You.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.”
MedlinePlus: “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Role of Research in Improving the Understanding and Treatment of Anxiety Disorders.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Treatment of Anxiety Disorders.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “How to Get Help for Anxiety Disorders.”
Sherman, K. Depression and Anxiety, May 2010.
Pilkington, K. Autonomic Neuroscience, October 2010.
Lakhan, S. Nutrition Journal, October 2010.
Saeed, S. American Family Physician, August 2007.
National Institute of Mental Health: “Panic Disorder.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Social Phobia.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Specific Phobias.”
Can a Weighted Blanket Help You Sleep Better?
We Tested One For a Month to Find Out
Judging by social media and other chatter, one of the impactful talks at TED 2019—held in Vancouver in April—was Matthew Walker’s “You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep—and it’s Killing You.”
Walker, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, has been encouraging people to take sleep more seriously for a few years now, arguing that, short-term, a lack of sleep messes with our memory, appetite and immune systems, and, long-term, could make us more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer. That got people’s attention.
Shouldn’t we already know that sleep is an important thing, though? We all know the joy of a solid, uninterrupted eight hours, right? And, on the flip side, anyone who’s ever experienced a sleep disorder—roughly 40 per cent of Canadians, including me—is keenly aware that it’s not just the frustration in the middle of the night that’s a problem, it’s the fact that the next day’s largely a write-off, thanks to a haze of brain fog.
What is it that keeps people like me up? Anxiety? Stress? Depression? It might be a complex interplay of things, explains Dr. Christine Purdon, Director of Clinical Training of the PhD program in Clinical Psychology at the University of Waterloo and co-director of the Anxiety Studies Division, who says that insomnia is characteristic of a number of mental health problems.
“Some people have trouble sleeping because their thoughts race and they’re worried that they’re not going to be able to manage the challenges of the next day,” says Purdon. “So, they’re trying to problem-solve, but they can’t do anything about it at two in the morning in their bed, so the thoughts keep racing and then they get anxious. And you can’t sleep when you’re anxious because you’ve got cortisol running through your body.”
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that jacks up our blood sugar, suppresses our immune system and gets us ready to run away from predators—a built-in alarm, starting at the amygdala, a part of the brain that sends distress signals to other parts of the brain. Although our modern anxiety is more likely to be about deadlines or office politics than sabre-tooth tigers, we still make cortisol when the amygdala senses danger.
Purdon’s description is exactly how I feel at 5 a.m., hopelessly trying to get back to sleep with Jedi mind tricks. I should say, though, that I’ve been pretty lucky to have fewer (and shorter) bouts of insomnia over the past several years. Whereas, I once had torturous two- or three-week spells a few times a year, it’s down to a sporadic few nights a month. I attribute a lot of that to keeping more regular hours and paying attention to the quality of mattresses and light “noise” in the room.
I’d like to get it down to zero, though, so I’m always on the look-out for new strategies for better sleep. As such, when Sleep Country Canada offered to send me a Snuggable Weighted Blanket ($199 plus tax) to try out, I took them up on it.
Day One: The package tells me this 230-thread count, 15-pound blanket will “create a feeling of being hugged,” as well as “reduce chronic stress and high levels of anxiety” and “may increase serotonin and melatonin levels and decrease cortisol levels…to promote a better sleep.” The key word here is “may.” There really isn’t a lot of peer-reviewed research confirming the many anecdotal stories circulating that it’s helpful for anxiety and/or sensory processing disorders.
First night: Even if you think you have a pretty good idea as to what 15 pounds feels like, picking up this blanket produces cognitive dissonance—it’s way heavier than it looks. It’s also only five feet long, so you have to choose between covering your chest or your feet. Initially, I thought it was a non-starter, since it felt less like “hugging” and more like being trapped. Despite my concerns, I slept well.
Week Two: The weird thing is, you adjust to the weight pretty quickly—for me, I was actually looking forward to the sensation of added weight by the end of the first week. I was sleeping more on my back and moving around less, which is obviously a good thing
Week Three: Insomnia strikes. For me, it’s never about getting to sleep but, rather, staying asleep. I’ll wake up at 4 a.m. and that’s when the thoughts start racing. This generally lasts several hours, but, all four nights that it happened to me that week I was able to get back to sleep in under 15 minutes.
Month’s End: After a month with no insomnia, I’m a convert. I still have some trepidation, since I’ve had a lot of vivid dreams—sometimes too vivid. I’m also worried about whether or not it’ll be too hot in, say, mid-July.
I’m also worried it might not last. What if my good sleeps are just a placebo effect? As Dr. Purdon points out, without more studies, we can’t know. She can, however, imagine a theory for how a weighted blanket might work to alleviate some symptoms of anxiety.
“I have heard of people using weighted blankets and enjoying them,” she says. “I think that if it gives a safety signal—like that kind of warm sense of being bundled—I think it’s possible that sensation can make somebody feel safer and down-regulate the amygdala and get rid of the anxiety, which could help you get back to sleep.”
Still, Purdon warns that people shouldn’t get their hopes up that a blanket, no matter how good, will be life-transforming, even if future research does support the theory.
“I do have a fair bit of skepticism about things that come onto the market making big claims,” she says. “I don’t think there are quick fixes for anything. I think it’s great if some people try something and it helps them. But I don’t think something like that is going to cure anybody’s anxiety problems, that’s for sure.”