Recently I was contacted by a local TV station asking about the use of weighted blankets to help people with insomnia. Typically, when people ask about which pillows and mattresses are best for sleep, I have to explain that there really isn’t much in the way of research to guide decision making about what to use. In general, I would say the best mattress or pillow is the one that you are comfortable with. Whether you need to be on a stack of feather beds to drift off or you enjoy sleeping out under the stars with a rock for a pillow, it's fine if it works for you. That being said, if you are interested in quality and pricing ratings on items such as pillows, sheets, and mattresses, you could check out the March 2019 issue of Consumer Reports. It provides some guidance for people looking to purchase these items for the highest quality at the best price.
Weighted blankets, however, are different in that there has been some research looking into their effectiveness. I had not appreciated the degree to which weighted blankets had become a “thing” until I heard from the reporter. Weighted blankets have become very popular and sold like hotcakes during the last holiday season. People I know who watch a good deal more TV than I do explained that they had seen quite a few ads for weighted blankets and a number of them had strongly considered getting one. It turns out that one of the most popular of these blankets is known as the gravity blanket and got started as a Kickstarter campaign. It has earned millions in sales.
Because my wife worked in autism research at the Yale Child Study Center for many years, I had become aware that weighted blankets have been used to help some people with autism feel calmer and more comfortable. It is easy to imagine that people would probably find the feeling of a weighted blanket to be comforting, something like being in a safe cocoon. Occupational therapists have utilized weighted blankets for years for grounding patients, increasing reality orientation, helping them to relax, and helping them to self-sooth, among other uses.
These blankets provide tactile sensations including warmth, pressure, and a feeling of being held. Because anything that allows you to be comfortable and relax is likely to help you fall asleep, at least in theory, a weighted blanket could be helpful to those with insomnia.
A study by Ackerley, Badre, & Olausson (2015) was conducted in Sweden and specifically explored whether weighted blanket can decrease symptoms of insomnia. The research was undertaken in an effort to find simple and easy methods to reduce insomnia without the need for medications, supplements, or extensive therapeutic interventions. This is a worthy goal as insomnia is a disorder that significantly and negatively affects quality of life and can be challenging and expensive to treat.
They used blankets that were commercially available and had previously been used with elderly individuals living in nursing homes and with patients who had autism spectrum disorders. The blankets were weighted by a metal chain that was evenly distributed throughout the blanket. This allowed for application of constant pressure and sensation across the body. These blankets had two sides and participants could choose to have the padded side or the chain side next to them. The weighted blankets could be used with another quilt either over or under them.
Unlike some weighted blankets that can be purchased today, the study blankets were not thick and did not provide much additional warmth. The blankets were tested in three different weights: 6 kg (13.2 lb.), 8 kg (17.6 lb.), or 10 kg (22 lb.). Participants were allowed to choose their preferred weight and the most commonly chosen was the 8 kg version.
Participants had to have an existing complaint of chronic insomnia. If they were taking a sleep medication immediately prior to the study they could keep taking it throughout. People with recent onset insomnia, sleep apnea, untreated metabolic disorders, and high blood pressure were excluded. There were 31 participants, inclduing 20 women and 11 men. The study was conducted with participants sleeping in their usual setting. There was a week-long pre-test baseline period, a two-week period of nightly use of the weighted blanket, and then a one-week post-test period in their normal setting but without use of the weighted blanket.
A number of measures were used. Questionnaires were used to assess patients’ level of insomnia (they had moderate difficulty falling and staying asleep) and sleepiness (they had some excessive daytime sleepiness). Objective measures of sleep were utilized including actigraphy (used to analyze patterns of movement to show likely periods of wakefulness and sleep) and polysomnography (that uses brain waves to specifically score the presence of sleep). Subjective measures were also used including sleep diaries, ratings of quality of sleep, and feelings about the weighted blankets.
The results were quite interesting in that, on average, length of sleep was significantly increased by the use of the weighted blanket. Additionally, movement during the night was reduced with the blanket. For participants already using sleeping medication, the time to fall asleep and time spent in bed were reduced when using the blanket.
Sleep time was reduced and activity level was increased during the post-test period when the blankets were no longer used. For the 20 participants who liked using the blanket, wakefulness during the night was reduced and total sleep time was increased. Quality of sleep was judged to be better when using the weighted blanket. By far, participants (63%) preferred the padded side of the blanket to the chain side. Most (63%) just used the weighted blanket without an additional quilt but when the additional quilt was used most preferred to have it under rather than over the blanket. In general, the blankets had a positive effect on sleep for participants with chronic insomnia, especially when they enjoyed using the blanket and if they were already taking sleeping medication.
The authors concluded that weighted blankets were effective in improving quality and quantity of sleep for participants with mild to moderate insomnia who had some excessive daytime sleepiness. Thus, these blankets could be beneficial for use by patients with general insomnia and mild sleep problems. Physiological arousal may be reduced by the sensation of deep pressure and consistent sensory input, as provided by the weighted blanket, and this can facilitate relaxation into sleep. This was seen in the decreased nocturnal movement of participants while using the blankets. Not everyone liked using the blankets, the mid-weight blanket was most often chosen by participants, and the positive effects only occurred while the blankets were used and did not persist after use was stopped. Weighted blankets may indeed be an effective, complementary, non-pharmacological intervention for patients with chronic insomnia.
So, should you purchase a weighted blanket? It could be a good choice, if you struggle with the sleep problems above. I would be aware of cost considerations and the types of materials used. Also, it would be important to be sure that there is a good return policy before you give it a try—no sense in losing sleep over a bad investment!
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.