They can also be particularly helpful to children on the autistic spectrum, or who suffer from ADHD or ADD. These types of children often find it hard to receive physical contact, yet still yearn for the calming sensation of pressure and touch. A weighted blanket offers this gentle sensory stimulation in a way that often feels more tolerable.
But is there any research that backs up these anecdotal claims from a more scientific perspective?
Whilst extensive research into the benefits of weighted blankets is still quite limited, a number of weighted blanket studies do exist.
Before we look at the research though, let’s briefly explore the underlying science behind how weighted blankets work.
Deep Touch Pressure (DTP): A Quick Lesson In Serotonin
The science behind weighted blankets is essentially something called deep touch pressure stimulation (DTP). DTP is where gentle pressure is applied to the body, through methods such as holding, stroking, hugging, swaddling or squeezing. This gentle pressure naturally encourages the brain to release the hormone serotonin.
Sometimes called the ‘happy hormone’, serotonin helps promote relaxation and wellbeing. Thought to play a key role in maintaining mood, it also converts to melatonin, which helps aid natural sleep.
Children and adults with disorders such as autism, depression, insomnia anxiety or ADHD are often low in serotonin, so by using a weighted blanket, vest or pad, the body is gently encouraged to produce serotonin to help promote relaxation and sleep.
Want to know more about DTP? There’s a helpful guide here.
Weighted Blanket Studies: What Does The Research Say?
Whilst a great deal of anecdotal evidence exists on the positive effects of weighted blankets, empirical evidence is still pretty limited.
The good news though is that some does exist.
Let’s take a look at the research and studies on weighted blankets and what they say.
Deep Pressure Stimulation (DTP) & Weighted Blankets
This article from Applied Behavioral Analysis EDU uncovers some of the increasing body of research into deep pressure stimulation and touch therapy. It also describes in more detail the biological processes that take place when a weighted blanket is used.
Below you’ll also find 5 studies that have looked specifically at the potential benefits of weighted blankets within their research:
The ‘Hug Box & Temple Grandin
1 – Calming Effects of Deep Touch Pressure in Patients with Autistic Disorder, College Students, and Animals, Temple Grandin, PHD (Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, 1992)
Some of the earliest research on DTP and weighted blankets was produced by Temple Grandin. A noted animal scientist, Temple, herself, was on the autistic spectrum and one of the first people to publicly share insights from her own personal experience of autism.
These insights led her to invent the ‘squeeze’ or ‘hug box‘, a device which exerted deep touch pressure to its users.
A study of the box discovered that deep touch pressure was of benefit to children with autism and ADHD, acting to both calm and reduce stimulating behaviours.
As for the specific benefits of a weighted blanket for sleep, Temple’s study reported that:
‘A high functioning autistic woman stated, ‘I need heavy blankets on me to sleep well, or else my muscles won’t calm down.’
And in Temple’s own case she ‘used to crawl under sofa cushions and have my sister sit on them’.
Weighted Blankets’ Positive Impact On Insomnia
2 – Positive Effects of Weighted Blankets on Insomnia (PDF) (Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders, 2015)
This study from 2015 found that the weighted blanket used in the study had a ‘positive impact on sleep’, providing the participants with a ‘more comfortable, better quality, and more secure sleep.’ In fact, 21/31 of the study participants, with insomnia, fall asleep faster.
Here’s an extract from the study, which concluded that:
‘…a weighted blanket may aid in reducing insomnia through increased tactile and proprioceptive inputs, may provide an innovative, non- pharmacological approach and complementary tool to improve sleep quality.’
Weighted Blankets & Reduced Anxiety
3 – Physiological Effects of Deep Touch Pressure on Anxiety Alleviation: The Weighted Blanket Approach (PDF) (Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering, 2012)
This study from 2012 looked specifically at the effect of weighted blankets on anxiety in dental environments. Whilst few us enjoy a trip to the dentist’s chair, for some people it’s a truly traumatic event, causing severe anxiety.
The study examined how patients’ nervous systems reacted when receiving DTP through the use of a weighted blanket and uncovered:
‘…physiological evidence to support the positive clinical effects of DTP for reducing anxiety in dental environments.’
4 – Pilot Study of a Sensory Room in an Acute Inpatient Psychiatric Unit (Australasian Psychiatry, 2012)
This Australasian Psychiatry study from 2012 examined the effect of sensory rooms in an acute inpatient psychiatric unit. The study discovered that when participants used a sensory room, there was a marked reduction in stress, as well as an improvement in a range of disturbed behaviours.
With regards to weighted blankets in particular, the results showed that:
‘Those individuals who used the weighted blanket reported significantly greater reductions in distress and clinician-rated anxiety than those who did not.’
The report also concluded that, with regards to stress reduction:
‘Weighted blankets appear to be particularly useful.’
5 – Exploring the Safety and Therapeutic Effects of Deep Pressure Stimulation Using a Weighted Blanket (Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 2008)
This study from 2008 also found that weighted blankets reduced anxiety in participant patients, revealing that:
‘63% reported lower anxiety after use, and 78% preferred the weighted blanket as a calming modality.’
Weighted Vest Studies
As well as studies on weighted blankets, a few research studies have been conducted on the possible benefits of weighted vests. A weighted vest works in a very similar way to a weighted blanket and is usually recommended by a therapist, to help a child:
- calm down
- transition from a high energy activity to a low energy one.
Here’s a summary of the key research findings on weighted vests:
A 2015 study in the Journal of Occupational Therapy discovered that weighted vests decreased stress and helped promot a sense of calmness. A quarter of the research participants were being treated for anxiety, depression or ADHD.
A further 2011 study, in the South African Journal of Occupational Therapy, followed 30 students with ADHD who demonstrated significant improvement in a number of areas, when wearing a weighted vest. Improvements included task completion speed and task focus.
In 2001, a study in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, found that students who wore a weighted vest increased their focus by up to 18%. Again, the study was a small one, with only 4 participants. Interestingly, though, 3 of the 4 students often asked to wear the vest outside of the research trials.
Weighted Blanket Studies: A Final Word
An increasing body of research suggests deep touch pressure stimulation (DTP) may positively effect a range of disorders – from sleeping issues and anxiety to autism and ADHD.
A limited number of studies also exist that specifically suggest there many be positive effects of deep pressure stimulation provided by weighted blankets and vests.
Saying this, it’s important to keep in mind that weighted sensory blankets and vests don’t work for everyone, a reason perhaps, why some studies suggest they don’t work.
However, there’s a growing body of science backed evidence that suggests for many people, the benefits are real.CLICK HERE TO VIEW RECOMMENDED WEIGHTED BLANKETS FOR KIDS