Special needs

Everything you need to know about weighted blankets

Everyone wants a good night's sleep, but not everyone can get one. Weighted blankets can aid relaxation and promote a feeling of calm.

By Christen Shepherd

Everything you need to know about weighted blankets

Photo: iStock Photo

The day his weighted blanket arrived, I found my son Zach had put himself to bed early. When I stepped into his bedroom, I saw him lying there, his head peeking out above the dinosaur print of his new therapeutic bedding, his fingers tracing the soft fabric. He looked relaxed and happy, and for once he was not sliding his legs up and down the mattress and fiddling with stuffies. “How does it feel?” I asked him. “It makes my muscles quiet—I don’t have all that emotion,” he replied.

Zach has developmental delays, anxiety and sensory processing issues, and some of the more difficult symptoms he deals with are insomnia, emotional regulation and becoming overwhelmed easily in noisy and busy situations. When he was a little boy, he intuitively realized that weight and pressure on his body helped him feel better—he always wanted to wear the same heavy hoodie and his father and I could help him calm down by holding him in a long, tight hug. His occupational therapist recommended trying a weighted blanket, to complement his medications and therapies, and we’re glad we took her advice. If you’re considering investing in a weighted blanket, here’s a primer:

What is a weighted blanket?

Dr. Temple Grandin, an animal behaviour expert with autism, was among the first to note that deep-pressure touch calmed the central nervous systems of both animals and humans with sensory sensitivities. Her research led to the development of the weighted blanket. Filled with poly pellets, weighted discs, or glass beads, weighted blankets are heavier than standard blankets, and they apply pressure across the body to promote relaxation.

Why does a weighted blanket feel calming?

“Deep-pressure touch helps promote relaxed feelings via the release of dopamine and serotonin, helping with arousal and regulation,” says occupational therapist, Dina Barnes, from London, Ont.

What conditions might a weighted blanket be good for?

“I’d suggest them for children who have trouble finding calm or self-regulating, including children with symptoms of anxiety, trauma or attachment disorders, sensory issues, as well as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnoses,” says registered therapist Heather Chandler, of Chandler Counselling, in London, Ont..

What do kids say about weighted blankets?

Four-year-old Dakota, who has skeletal dysplasia, which can cause joint stiffness and pain in his limbs, says he feels “safe” since sleeping with his weighted blanket, because his legs don’t hurt as badly. Four-year-old Aidan, who is on the autism spectrum, began using a weighted blanket to help him transition from his crib to a bed. “Now he loves being covered by it, and stays in bed,” says his mother, Pam. Chandler reports that one of her 6-year-old clients who has ADHD and hates being alone in his room at night told her that his weighted blanket “feels like a hug.”

Do all kids find weighted blankets therapeutic?

When Aimée (14), who has PTSD and anxiety, started using one she said, “The weight was a shock at first, but it didn’t take long to get used to it—now I find it’s comfortable and I relax with it.” However, her elder brother, James, who has a joint ASD-ADHD diagnosis and a history of sleep disregulation, borrowed her blanket for a night, but didn’t like how it felt when he tried to toss and turn. “It was claustrophobic,” he says.

What if my kid doesn’t like the weighted blanket?

It’s a good idea to borrow a blanket for your kid to try before committing to buying one. Barnes says “Some kids don’t like feeling weighed down, and they might prefer using a lap pad or shoulder pad to a blanket.” She also notes that weighted blankets can feel too warm at night. “If that’s the case, I recommend they be switched for a comforter once a child falls asleep,” she says.

Marvel themed blanket. Photo: SensaCalm

How old should my kid be to use a weighted blanket?

Most manufacturers stress that weighted blankets should not be used on infants and toddlers under the age of two. A child should not be too small, young or physically challenged to remove their blanket independently, and supervision is advised, particularly for children under the age of six. “Also the blanket should never cover a child’s face and kids shouldn’t be wrapped tightly in them,” says Barnes.

Are weighted blankets just for kids or can parents use them too?

Adults with any of the above-named conditions may find them calming too. They’re also good for adults who have insomnia, chronic pain conditions or restless leg syndrome. After buying a weighted blanket for her son Kai, who has reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and ADHD, a frequently stressed-out mother Kathryn got one of her own. “Appointments and meltdowns can leave my world spinning, but the blanket lets me sleep; it’s a definite game-changer,” she says. Mother-of-two, Sylvia, has fibromyalgia. “Even on the meds, I experience low-grade pain throughout the night, and it’s sometimes hard to fall and stay asleep,” she says. “But the blanket helps me sleep longer and more peacefully, and that’s crucial for functioning as a parent the next day.”

Are weighted blankets just for night time?

Some kids like to use them periodically during the day too. Mother of 5-year-old Kai, Kathryn, says, “My son uses his weighted blanket for sleep but also to calm down after tantrums.” Kai says, “It makes my brain calm down and my body less silly.” Skylar, an anxious 10-year-old, says that when she’s overwhelmed with school stress, she likes to sit wrapped in her blanket for a while. “It can make me feel less worried about things like tests.”

Best of all, a child can learn to grab their weighted blanket themselves when they’re feeling anxious or out of control. I often spot my son Zach with his weighted blanket draped across his legs, to stop his involuntary shaking, while he’s playing video games. Barnes recommends weighted tools be used during the day as a preventative measure, and not just when a child is upset. “I recommend using them for 20-30 minutes during the day, and then removing them for at least 30 minutes, for maximum effectiveness.”

Can weighted blankets be used as an alternative to medication and therapies?

“It’s important to keep in mind, that although they can help with relaxation and self-regulation, they are a complementary tool and should not replace medication and appropriate medical supervision,” says Barnes. There needs to be more independent scientific research done into the benefits of weighted blankets, so parents should be wary of any company making claims about their use as a “treatment” or “cure” for any medical condition. In my son Zach’s case, the blanket didn’t replace his anxiety medications, but it did bolster their effects—it’s just one of many tools in our kit.

How do you choose the right weighted blanket?

It’s generally recommended that weighted blankets weigh 10% of the user’s body weight, plus one pound. The majority of blankets are filled with poly pellets, but some customers prefer glass beads as they’re more dense, offering the same weight with less bulk. Because glass beads are tiny, breakage isn’t a concern. Whatever the filling, it must be evenly distributed for continual pressure. When it comes to the covering; children with sensory sensitivities might prefer softer, plush coverings such as bamboo fabric, fleece or minky. Companies such as Hippo Hug and Nancy Sews offer customized fabrics, which all kids love.

How do you wash a weighted blanket?

Since juice stains are nearly inevitable, if a kid will be using the weighted blanket to do things like watch TV or take a quiet moment to regroup, be sure your blanket is washable. (You may need to go the laundromat for blankets over 13 lbs.) Weights can be removed for washing on some blankets, like those sold through Nick’s World, which also means weights can be added as your child grows.

Where can I buy a weighted blanket?

Ready-made and customized blanket are available online through many companies. Here are some of our favourites:

Bugalugs, a family-run eco-store based in Brantford, Ont., carries a variety of products for kids with special needs. Their weighted blankets come in a monochrome patterned fabric, and are for kids up to 100 lb. The $82 blankets are made of cotton lycra, bamboo fleece with fabric layers in the middle, which are anti-bacterial, breathable and environmentally friendly. Blankets take around two weeks to make by hand, and they can be picked up in Brantford or mailed across Canada.

Boy wrapped in weighted blanket. Photo: Bugalugs

Based in BC, Soothing Hug Weighted Blankets offers custom-made and readymade weighted blankets (for kids and adults), as well as weighted stuffed animals, lap pads, vests and shoulder wraps, ideal for use in the car or classroom.

Nick’s World in Kitchener, Ont., is one of the few places where parents can see and handle the finished product before investing. Owner Christine Rose, whose son has autism, was frustrated by the lack of affordable special needs products available for kids, so she opened the store. “I have sample blankets so children can try them,” she says. The blankets come in two sizes, with several weight options.

Gravid blankets are made with a soft microplush covering and the less bulky micro glass beads and starting at 15lb, they are a great option for older kids, teens and adults over 140lb, needing a heavier weight. Co-founder Omar Shahban, a certified kinesiologist, says he makes blankets for the masses, so overstimulated people can disconnect and relax.  “My teen daughter and I bargain with one another to get custody of this blanket in the evenings,” says Lisa. “It’s so comforting.” Orders are shipped from Toronto with free next-day service.

SensaCalm blankets have a quilted look and pillowy feel, as they contain polyfill. They are both machine-washable and –dryable. These weighted blankets can be custom-made from a wide variety of fabrics or bought from existing stock. The US-based company also makes Peaceful Pals (3-lb or 5-lb weighted animal stuffies), lap pads, shoulder pads, weighted vests and duvet covers.

Magic Weighted Blankets ships across North America. They carry fabrics such as chenille, minky, fleece, cotton and waterproof and weights suitable for users between 30 and 200lb. Prices range from $79 to $269. (Note: in Canada, products bought from US companies are subject to taxes and duty, often paid upon delivery.)

Can I make a weighted blanket?

If you want to go DIY, you’ll find instructional videos and posts on YouTube and special needs blogs or Etsy. Beads can be ordered online in bulk or purchased in smaller amounts from Michael’s Craft Store.

And remember: Many loved ones of special needs families want to help but don’t know how they can be of service. You could be surprised at how enthusiastic a resourceful person with a sewing machine could be to take on this craft project. Jo Van, and Ont. based grandmother whose three grandchildren have Aspergers, works tirelessly making blankets for kids who need them. “After seeing the positive effects on my grandkids, I realized I can make this world a little better for other families,” she says.

This article was originally published on Oct 16, 2019