At Harkla, we like the idea of focusing on a few things that get big results. What this means for us when working with families who are raising a child with autism is to look for what things to work on that give you the biggest 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.
This probably explains why our weighted blanket is our best selling item since it is one of the main tools for helping your child get better sleep. For some families, the difference has been amazing.
However, it’s important to understand the why behind the weighted blankets. Sometimes it seems silly that simply adding a heavy blanket to your child’s life can such a profound effect. That’s why we’ve put together this article so that you can get a look at the scientific studies supporting the use of weighted blankets.
Before we look at if weighted blankets work or not, let’s go over what a weighted blanket is, in case you are new to them.
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 bodyweight plus a pound or two.
So if your 3-year-old needs a weighted blanket and weighs 40lbs, you’d want to get them a 5lb blanket.
Our weighted blankets are designed in a two-piece duvet style. We did this because we wanted washing the blanket to be as easy as possible. Both pieces can be washed and dried, but since we use padding on the inside for more comfort, it can take longer to dry. With the two-piece setup, you can easily take off the top layer and wash it and dry it quickly.
While our 5-pound blanket is weighted just with PP cotton, our other blankets are 5 pounds of PP Cotton plus poly pellet beads to get them up to the proper weight. The cover is dotted minky, which is great for sensory seekers.
So that’s the general idea of what a weighted blanket is. Now let’s get into why these work.
The underlying science on 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.
So 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 our weighted blanket. Another way is a weighted compression vest that your child can wear around or when they are feeling upset. Our lap pads are another form of deep touch pressure, as well as our 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.
Our first study, from 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, which we’ve talked about before here, 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.”
These 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 pairs 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.
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.”
So that’s the collection of studies on weighted blankets, weighted vests, but overall deep touch pressure. We will be updating this list as more good studies come out.
If you have any questions or comments, please let us know in the comments section! We are here to answer questions and would love to have your feedback!
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