With a bunch of different therapies, products, and strategies, it’s hard to do it all, even though you want to give your child every ounce of help you can. The way we deal with this when working with families who are raising a child with autism is to look for high leverage points.
What we mean by a high leverage point is one thing that can be fixed that will have big results.
One of these high leverage areas is improving your child’s sleep. From our experience, this is a major problem for not just the children, but the entire family unit. We all know how important sleep is, so being able to improve the sleep of the entire family is always a big win.
One of the best and easiest ways parents are able to improve their children’s sleep is through the use of weighted blankets.
In this article, we want to dive into why weighted blankets can work so well to help your child relax and get a restful night of sleep. Before we dive into the science behind weighted blankets, let’s take a look at what exactly a weighted blanket is.
What is a weighted blanket?
A weighted blanket is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a blanket with extra weight in it. The weight varies based on who you are buying the blanket for. The rule of thumb for getting the right weighted is 10% of your child’s body weight plus a pound or two.
So if your three-year-old needs a weighted blanket and weighs 40lbs, you’d want to get him/her a five-pound blanket.
There are different ways to weigh a blanket. Most are weighted by some kind of beads. These can be millet, poly pellets, or even glass beads. For some of the lighter weights, like five pounds, you’ll even come across blankets simply being weighted by lots of cotton.
As with most blankets, you’ll find they come in different materials too. The different materials, along with how the blankets are weighted, will determine if you can wash the blanket at home or will have to take it to a dry cleaner. This is something you’ll have to check specifically with individual blankets.
So that’s the general idea of what a weighted blanket is. Now let’s get into why these work.
What is the science behind a weighted blanket?
The underlying science behind weighted blankets is called deep touch pressure (DTP). DTP is about gently applying pressure to the body to increase the release of serotonin.
Serotonin is a chemical in the body that promotes relaxation. What is interesting is that children with autism also tend to be low in serotonin, along with those who have depression, anxiety, aggression, ODC, PTSD, and bipolar disorder. This could be why the effect is much more profound on children with autism, even though deep touch pressure works for most people.
Gently applying pressure to the body releases a chemical in your child that promotes relaxation. You can gently apply pressure in a few ways. One way is a weighted blanket. Another way is a weighted compression vest that your child can wear around or when they are feeling upset. Lap pads are another form of deep touch pressure, as well as sensory body socks.
They can all be used in different scenarios to take advantage of deep touch pressure in as many realms as possible.
Because deep touch pressure can be accomplished in a few different ways, our studies will also reference the use of weighted vests, as they are often used. We’ve split the list of our studies into two sections, Weighted Blanket Studies, and Weighted Vest Studies.
Weighted Blanket Studies
Our first study, from the Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering in 2012, looked at how patients’ nervous systems reacted when having DTP through the use of a weighted blanket. With measuring the subject’s nervous systems and finding positive results “this study provides physiological evidence to support the positive clinical effects of DTP (deep touch pressure) for reducing anxiety in dental environments.”
This study shows that there is a physiological reaction in a person’s nervous system when DTP is applied. This was specifically for dentist offices since that is a place that causes so many people anxiety.
Another study from 2012 in Australasian Psychiatry looked at the effect of sensory rooms in an acute inpatient psychiatric unit. They found that when patients used a sensory room, there was a “significant reduction in distress and improvement in a range of disturbed behaviors. Those individuals who used the weighted blanket reported significantly greater reductions in distress and clinical-rated anxiety than those who did not.”
This is great news! Not only did the sensory room reduce anxiety, but those who used a weighted blanket saw an even bigger reduction in anxiety and distress.
A study from Occupational Therapy in Mental Health in 2008 found that when a weighted blanket was used with patients, the majority of them reported lower anxiety.
This study from the Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders from 2015 found that a weighted blanket helped those with insomnia sleep better. Here is a little clip from their results:
“Objectively, we found that sleep bout time increased, as well as a decrease in movements of the participants, during weighted blanket use. Subjectively, the participants liked sleeping with the blanket, found it easier to settle down to sleep and had an improved sleep, where they felt more refreshed in the morning. Overall, we found that when the participants used the weighted blanket, they had a calmer night’s sleep.”
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Weighted Vest Studies
The following studies are about the use of weighted vests, but because they are focusing on the same underlying science of deep touch pressure, they are relevant to our discussion on weighted blankets.
One study focusing on deep touch pressure, or as this study refers to it, Deep Pressure Stimulation, found that using a weighted vest “reduced sympathetic arousal and non–stimulus-driven electrical occurrences.” This means that the pressure from the vest not only mentally calmed down the subjects, but there were physiological reactions to prove the use of the vest.
This one pair well with our first study referenced in the above-weighted blanket section since they both showed positive physiological reactions from the use of DTP.
There are a few studies focused on if weighted vests improve children’s focus. Two of the studies focused on children with ADHD, while the other two focused on children with Autism. All four of them found positive results!
One study found that children with ADHD improved 18 to 25% with on-task behavior while wearing a weighted vest.
Another weighted vest study that focused on children with autism had improved in-seat behavior while using a weighted vest. It should be noted though that there was a period where it didn’t work at first because children enjoyed them so much. They realized that if they acted out, they then got the weighted vest. The researchers used “Noncontingent reinforcement (NCR) was assessed within the context of a withdrawal design. NCR had an optimal effect on the participants’ in-seat behavior.
What they mean by NCR, is that they used the vests long enough to where the children stopped acting out to get them. Once the vests became a part of their normal routines, the researchers could better study how the weighted vests affected the children’s in-seat behavior.
Once they studied children’s behavior after the use of NCR, the children’s in-seat behavior improved.
Another study in 2011 found that using a weighted vest with children who have ADHD improved their in-seat behavior attention-to-task and task completion.
The last study we’ll look at is from 2001 that looked at how preschoolers with pervasive developmental disorders reacted to weighted vests. It found that the use of weighted vests decreased the number of distractions while increasing the duration of focused attention.
What Do The Experts Say About Weighted Blankets?
This next section is a couple of surveys taken of occupational therapists about the use of deep touch pressure in their practices.
A 2004 report that surveyed occupational therapists on their experience using weighted vests found that:
“Although the interviewees observed some different behavioral changes in children with various developmental disorders when these children used weighted vests, their practice patterns in using the vests were similar across disabilities. The most common behavioral changes noted were increased attention and staying on task.”
Another study that investigated OT’s experience with weighted vests with children with autism and ADHD found that “Staying on task, staying in seat and attention span were the most common behaviors that therapists reported improving when weighted vests were used.”
Deep touch pressure is possibly something you’ve come across naturally when raising your child. For a lot of parents, this usually comes in the form of their child always wanting to hug and be hugged, or realizing that laying with your child before bed is a way to get them to calm down and fall asleep.
Fortunately, there are ways beyond hugging to get the benefits of deep touch pressure. A weighted blanket is a great option for bedtime, while a weighted vest or lap pad are good options to use in school.
This article was featured in Issue 60 – Sensory Tools For The Future