Weighted blankets have become a must-have item for people with trouble sleeping. Is there scientific evidence for weighted blankets in adult non-special-needs populations?

If you treat pediatric patients with autism spectrum disorder, then you’ve likely been recommending weighted blankets for more than a decade to help this population with their sleep. Stuffed with plastic pellets, glass beads, sand, or metal chains, the hefty blankets are thought to promote sleep by providing deep pressure and consistent sensory input to lower physiologic levels of arousal and stress.

Even in pediatric special-needs populations, the scientific support for weighted blankets has been light. For example, a randomized, multicenter, controlled, crossover phase III trial conducted in England reported that weighted blankets didn’t help children with autism sleep for longer, fall asleep faster, or wake less often, as measured by actigraphy. But subjective measurements were in the blankets’ favor. More kids chose the “really liked” category for the weighted blanket than the control (48% versus 31%). And more parents felt sleep was “very much/much improved” (51% versus 16%) and their child calmer (35% versus 14%) with the weighted blanket.1

The weighted blankets were well tolerated, and—considering this demographic may not respond as well to behavioral or pharmacologic interventions as healthy people—the benefits of trying out a blanket may well outweigh any potential negatives.

But what about the scientific evidence for weighted blankets in adult non-special-needs populations? This question has gained relevance only recently, as the blankets have suddenly become a must-have item. Healthy adults with insomnia (real or perceived) are now purchasing the blankets en masse.

The mass-market popularity was sparked in part by a Kickstarter campaign that went viral in 2017. “Gravity Blanket” asked for $21,500 to get its high-density poly pellet-filled product produced; it received more than $4.7 million in pledges. Since then, other adult-marketed weighted blankets have launched, and the category went from being only available at niche outlets to being available at major retailers such as Target.

Unfortunately, the scientific research on these blankets on adults with insomnia is scarcer than the data on special-needs children. A study supported by a weighted blanket maker and published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders is the best (and perhaps only) research on this subject.2

Thirty-one adults with insomnia in Sweden served as their own control group. The researchers analyzed their sleep with and

SreeRoySleepReview

Sree Roy
sroy@medqor.com

without the weighted blanket via 23-channel polysomnography, actigraphy, sleep diaries, and surveys. The chain-weighted blanket was linked to increased total sleep time and fewer movements. Subjectively, participants indicated that the blanket promoted more comfortable, better quality, and more secure sleep. The impact was more pronounced objectively when participants reported having a positive experience of using the weighted blanket and if they used sleep medication.

There are downsides, of course, to the weighted blanket trend. One is cost; that is, patients paying for blankets that do not have any impact on their sleep. The purchase also risks delaying science-backed treatments for people with insomnia, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or pharmaceuticals. There’s also some risk to patients being unaccustomed to sleeping without their “security blanket,” such as when traveling (though at least one manufacturer sells a “travel-friendly” version with a carrying handle).

Perhaps science will one day fully answer the question of whether weighted blankets improve sleep…or it’s possible the data may no longer be necessary as the next trendy sleep solution has its moment.

Sree Roy is editor of Sleep Review.

References

1. Gringras P, Green D, Wright B, et al. Weighted blankets and sleep in autistic children–a randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics. 2014 Aug;134(2):298-306

2.  Ackerley R, Badre G, Olausson H. Positive effects of a weighted blanket on insomnia. J Sleep Med Disord. 2015;2(3):1022.