Lack of sleep was something Julie K. had come to accept. For years, her son struggled to fall asleep and awakened several times through the night.
“I would put him in his bed and he would come out a gazillion times until I finally would bring him into our bed or go lay with him in his. It would take at least three hours for him to finally fall asleep and the minute I moved he would be up again,” says the Washington Township, NJ mom.
Her son, who has cerebral palsy, had anxiety that kept him from falling asleep easily. It wasn’t until she recently purchased a weighted blanket for her 8-year-old that both of them finally got a full night’s rest.
“It brings him so much relief, like I’m still there holding him,” Julie says. “He now sleeps through the night and no longer needs me in there. It was amazing and I wish I had bought one earlier.”
Gravity blankets help some children with special needs
Weighted blankets have emerged in recent years as a sleep-aid tool. Marketed as able to provide a calming effect that eases stress, the blankets have gained popularity in the special-needs community, including children with autism, attention deficit disorder and sensory-related issues.
Lynn Mills, a special education teacher assistant in Bucks County, PA and owner of Cuddle Calm Blankets, started making and selling weighted blankets five years ago after a friend requested one for a nephew.
“He had a lot of sensory issues because he was born addicted and her OT asked her to get a blanket,” Mills recalls.
The feedback she got from her friend, and others since, has been positive.
“I’m always in awe when people come back and are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this blanket worked for my kid,’” Lynn says. “It’s amazing to me that I just sewed a little blanket and now you’re sleeping.”
The blankets she makes are made of a fleece sewn into small compartment filled with pellets and cotton filler.
So far, Lynn says she’s sold or donated about 40 blankets to families dealing with anxiety, sensory issues, restless-leg syndrome, autism, attention-deficit disorder, neonatal-abstinence syndrome, and for children in foster care.
Little scientific evidence weighted blankets work
￼While more people turn to weighted blankets, there is little evidence for their effectiveness.
￼￼“At this point, it’s not clear that weighted blankets help sleep in kids. The research base just isn’t there yet,” says Johanna Carpenter, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE.
She points to a 2014 study published in the journal Pediatrics that looked at the use of weighted blankets by 73 children and teens with autism spectrum disorder. The study measured total sleep time, how long it took to fall asleep and the percentage of time the child was asleep, but didn’t find any improvements when compared to a non-weighted blanket that was otherwise identical.
Pediatrician urges parents to proceed with caution
While Carpenter has not specifically recommended the blankets to families she works with, she said she doesn’t advise against them either, with the understanding that the research isn’t sufficient and as long as the patient is not a young child, citing two deaths associated with weighted blankets: a 7-month-old baby in a day care center and a 9-year-old boy with autism who had been rolled in a weighted blanket.
Carpenter says there are no age guidelines for weighted blankets, but emphasizes babies should not use them, consistent with safe-sleep guidelines that call for parents to avoid soft bedding, such as blankets, in their infant’s crib.
Parents should proceed with caution with older children as well, she said. “Children need to be able to remove themselves from under the blanket, so it is very important that it is not too heavy (less than 10 percent of the user’s body weight), that it is not wrapped around them, and that it fits the body, rather than the bed,” she says. “If it is hanging over the side of the bed, it will pull toward the ground. “
Adults who don’t have the strength or ability to remove a weighted blanket or who have respiratory, circulatory or temperature-regulation conditions, should not use them without doctor approval, she says.
“For older children or adolescents, as long as a weighted blanket is used in addition to — not instead of —other evidence-based sleep interventions, I wouldn’t counsel a family not to try,” says Carpenter, though cognitive-based sleep interventions and a sleep psychologist or sleep behavioral specialist are good places to start.
“Other techniques also can have a calming effect on the body and the nervous system, such as slow, controlled breathing, progressive muscle relaxation; and visual imagery,” she suggests.
Michele Haddon is a freelance writer from Bucks County, PA.