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Weighted blanket therapy uses a therapeutic technique called deep touch pressure, or DTP, to produce an even, pleasant, gentle sensory experience. This is helpful for individuals who have sensory related disorders, such as children on the autism spectrum. One of the first times deep touch pressure was used in the field of medicine through a device, was when Temple Grandin produced her “hug box”, also known as a “squeeze machine”. The machine simulated the sensation of giving a hug, which helps the body begin the natural production of serotonin needed to regulate mood, release anxiety, and create a calming sensation. Grandin was diagnosed with autism herself, and this would be one of the first on the spectrum to share her experience with the public.
Weighted blankets don’t work exactly like Grandin’s machine, but they do offer a similar sensory experience, and are a welcome tool to individuals who have sleep disorders and special sensory needs. The use of deep touch pressure is becoming a more respected and used practice within the medical community, helping to regulate the neurotransmitter serotonin, and create a focused and calming experience for those who use them. This article will explore the use of weighted blankets and DTP throughout their many uses.
Evidence of Weighted Blanket Benefits
There have been several studies which conclude weighted blankets have a place in the world of occupational therapy. In 2008 Brian Mullen and his team of researchers published a study which outlined the use of a 30lb weighted blanket on 32 healthy adults. He reported his findings in the Journal of Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, writing; “The results reveal that the use of the 30 lb weighted blanket, in the lying down position, is safe as evidenced by the vital sign metrics. Data obtained on effectiveness reveal 33% demonstrated lowering in EDA when using the weighted blanket, 63% reported lower anxiety after use, and 78% preferred the weighted blanket as a calming modality.”
Deep touch pressure therapy has made a big impact on children and adults, particularly in the field of autism and ADHD. A sub-category on the autism spectrum called, Sensory Processing Disorder has also found evidence of relief by using these blankets. A report made in the Washington Post touched on one woman’s experience with SPD and DTP therapy. She explained that when she slept it seemed like her body didn’t know where it was spatially, and this could cause an episode and make it difficult to sleep. Using a weighted blanket was one of the first times she felt relief from these symptoms. She is quoted on the Washington Post as saying; “That was one of the first tools I got, because everybody said, you’re not sleeping, because your body is thrashing. It doesn’t know where it is in space.”
The blankets can also be used for those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, insomnia, and anxiety.
In 2015, another study involving weighted blankets found that participants in a sleep study reacted well to the use of the blanket, and slept better than they did with standard bedding. The study confirmed that the blanket works as a non-pharmaceutical approach to treating symptoms of insomnia. One school of thought on the way the blanket helps relates to the way that serotonin influences melatonin in the body. Melatonin, a natural hormone produced in the pineal gland, helps your body create a regular sleep schedule. It doesn’t work properly without serotonin, which makes the weighted blankets a powerful tool in helping reduce sleep disorders. The blanket also produces a calming effect, and gives the user something to focus on other than any anxiety they may be carrying.
In 2016, Caitlin Esparza from Stanford University, wrote a piece explaining the use of sensory modalities, such as weighted blankets for those diagnosed with juvenile Huntington’s disease. One young girl described in the publication, Carrie-Anne, found that using a weighted blanket helped her cope with sensory issues. The Stanford article explains; “The sensory modulation intervention implemented for Carrie-Anne used strategies that she indicated she preferred — a weighted blanket and vibrating massager, as well as added condiments to Carrie-Anne’s food to enhance the taste experience as recommended by her occupational therapist. Carrie-Anne was able to successfully use these SMI strategies in order to regulate her reaction and emotional stability.”
Choosing Your Weighted Blanket
The weighted blanket you use at home should only reflect 10% of your ideal body weight plus an additional one to two pounds. You can deduce the correct weight by asking your doctor what you should weigh based on your height and bone structure. For example, if you are 6’2”, you should weight somewhere between 148lbs to 186lbs. If you weigh 160, your blanket should be around 16lbs to 18lbs.
The weight should be evenly distributed throughout the blanket to produce a gentle pressure all over the body. Some individuals choose to make their own blankets using fleece and poly-pellets, while others buy them from specialty retailers. The most important thing to remember when choosing is that the blanket needs to be of a safe weight for the individual using it, and that it be properly structured, so that beads don’t escape and pose a choking hazard.
How to Use a Weighted Blanket
Weighted blankets come in all different sizes, colors, and materials, making it easy to choose one for any use. Get a lap blanket for home on the couch, a full-sized blanket for your bed, and a small weighted wrap sized blanket for your shoulders at work, or while traveling. You will find that so long as you or your child are able to breathe comfortably while using the blanket, there’s no wrong way for it to be used. Keep it away from the face and nose, but feel free to lay it over top of your body, wrap yourself in it, or only use it on a portion of your body while sitting up watching tv or reading.
You can use your blanket when you begin to feel an emotional response, or a sensory response to your environment. Or you can use it every night to sleep at home or while traveling. The needs of individuals are so different, that the way you use your blanket, and the way a neighbor uses it could be completely different.