Brett Scotch, DO, an osteopathic physician specializing in sleep medicine and otolaryngology and director of Scotch Institute, Wesley Chapel, Florida.
Move over sleep meds—there’s a new solution in town.
The comforting heavy covers, filled with small plastic balls that are sewn into compartments for even distribution, have been used for years to treat children with anxiety, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders and other disorders. Parents swear by them, especially to help kids sleep.
Now they’re catching on as a simple DIY solution for healthy adults with sleep problems. The theory is that they provide “deep pressure” that helps you feel calmer and more relaxed, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. You might think of it as a kind of swaddling—for grown-ups.
Do they work? Worth a try for better shut-eye? We investigated.
A recent study from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden looked at the effect of weighted blankets in 33 normal healthy adult men and women with chronic insomnia. Participants wore “actigraph” watches, which recorded the pattern of their movements when they went to bed, and they also kept sleep diaries. In the first week, they slept their usual way. Then for two weeks, they slept under weighted blankets of their choice, which ranged in weight from 13 pounds to 22 pounds—at least 12% of their body weight. During the fourth week, they went back to their normal sleeping conditions.
Results: When they used the weighted blankets, the sleepers spent more time in each phase of sleep, including truly restful deep sleep, and they moved around less during the night. According to their diaries, they found it easier to settle down to sleep, had better quality sleep and felt more refreshed in the morning.
While the Swedish study didn’t take anxiety into account, the blankets have a documented calming effect, which may help explain how they enhance sleep, according to sleep expert Michael Breus, PhD. “Most people who have insomnia have some level of anxiety,” he said. The sympathetic nervous system, which regulates the “fight or flight” reflex, is often easily aroused in people who have trouble sleeping, he explained. “A weighted blanket puts pressure on the mechanoreceptors—nerve endings under the skin—which sense pressure and signal muscles to relax. That makes us feel safe and supported.”
Who’s a good candidate to try a weighted blanket? Anyone who is in good health but has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, according to Dr. Breus.
Who isn’t: Anyone with a respiratory disorder (such as severe asthma) or a circulatory disorder, according to Brett Scotch, DO, an osteopathic physician specializing in sleep medicine and otolaryngology in Wesley Chapel, Florida. “The weight on your chest may impede your ability to breathe or decrease circulation to your extremities,” he warned. (If you have any serious health condition, consult your doctor before sleeping with a weighted blanket.)
If you do decide to try getting under heavy covers, look for a blanket that weighs about 10% of your body weight or more, has a material that feels good to you and distributes the weight evenly to provide firm, constant tactile stimulation across your body. The blankets are widely available online, from companies such as Sommerfly and Mosaic Weighted Blankets, and cost around $140. “If you’re claustrophobic, you may want to start with a lighter one and give it a chance,” said Karen Moore, OTR, an occupational therapist and founder of The Sensory Connection Program in Franconia, New Hampshire.
Will it work for you? The Swedish study is relatively small and short-term, so this is not the definitive solution to insomnia. Ultimately, the only way to find out if a weighted blanket will help you get better shut-eye is to try it. The good news: It’s safe and free of side effects. And unlike with prescription sleep medications, there’s no “rebound” problem—except, perhaps, to your wallet—if you decide it’s not for you. Just stop using it. (For more natural sleep tips, see Bottom Line’s “Guide to Better Sleep—No Sleeping Pills Needed.”)