It’s 11 p.m., and I’ve been in bed for 45 minutes. I tick off the items I completed on my to-do list that day, and think about what’s in the fridge and what I’ll make for dinner after work. I replay a difficult conversation I recently had. Other worries about things beyond my control appear on repeat in a spinning carousel of thoughts. I lie awake, wondering what will quiet my brain.
I decide it’s time to test the weighted blanket I ordered after reading an article about the blanket’s potential benefits to improve sleep and reduce anxiety, and hearing from a friend who said its pressure was a comfort to him.
I grab it from the foot of the bed and pull all 20 pounds of it over me. Within seconds, the comforting pressure distracts me from my thoughts and redirects my attention to the present. My breathing slows as I drift closer to sleep. The next thing I know it’s morning. I try the blanket again the next few nights, with similar results.
So is it really helping me relax and fall asleep? Is there any science to it, or is it just the placebo effect of a passing trend?
“A weighted blanket is like a hug,” says Rebecca Emmanuelli, patient care director and a nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian Westchester Behavioral Health Center. She manages a unit that uses weighted blankets for patients recovering from addiction (and uses one herself).
It works, according to Emmanuelli, because the comforting pressure is a form of deep pressure touch stimulation, or gentle squeezing, swaddling, hugging, or holding, which relaxes the nervous system.
“The pressure of the weighted blanket promotes the production of serotonin, which stimulates the body to relax and induces sleep,” Emmanuelli says. “And it may also encourage your body to release oxytocin, which can relieve pain and stress. For these reasons, oxytocin and serotonin are often referred to as ‘happy hormones.’”
Weighted blankets have been used in therapeutic settings for children for years, long before adults jumped on the trend.
“They make people feel that they are more grounded,” Emmanuelli says.
That’s how I feel when I use the weighted blanket — more grounded. I’ve had my blanket for about four months, and although I don’t curl up with it every night, if it’s taking me more than about 30 minutes to fall asleep and my mind is still active, I reach for it. It hasn’t failed to lull me to sleep yet.
What do sleep experts think about weighted blanket benefits?
Dr. Daniel Barone, the associate medical director of the Center for Sleep Medicine and an assistant attending neurologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, says that when it comes to helping people sleep and overcome insomnia, his philosophy is: “If it doesn’t hurt but may help, it’s worth a shot.” He adds, “The swaddling effect could provide a feeling of being more secure. While it’s not proven in any randomized control studies, it’s probably working on some sort of primitive things in our nature.”
Dr. Barone is a believer in meditation, acupuncture, and massage therapy to help with sleep, but says if people want to try weighted blankets, they should. He also recommends committing to a sleep regimen including reducing noise before bedtime, refraining from caffeine after 1 or 2 p.m., using noise-canceling headphones, shutting off electronic devices an hour before bedtime, and keeping your bedroom cool and dark.
“If someone is trying all these tips and it’s not helping, there could be a bigger sleep issue that needs to be addressed,” Dr. Barone says. “You should have a conversation with your doctor.”
At NewYork-Presbyterian Westchester Behavioral Health Center, on the addiction recovery unit where Emmanuelli works, patients can access weighted blankets in a comfort room, which is designed to help patients in different forms of distress while promoting feelings of empowerment and self-soothing. The room has a mural on the wall, materials for drawing, rockers, and reading and coloring materials. A sensory cart holds items to address the five senses, including a weighted blanket, lavender aromatherapy oil, peppermint candy, meditation cards, noise machines, stress balls, and relaxation CDs and DVDs.
A few years ago the addiction recovery team studied how a comfort room and sensory cart could help patients in recovery, and they found that these items, including a weighted blanket, stimulated senses, helped decrease cravings, and reduced anxiety.
Emmanuelli says she sees patients using the weighted blanket frequently in the comfort room, and that she loves her own weighted blanket. “It’s kind of hot, so it’s for winter months, but it really does help to promote that relaxing feeling at night that you need to just go to sleep, especially when you’re up and running around all day and carrying life stressors,” she says. “You can put it on and lull yourself to sleep. It’s a good self-coping skill, and something you can do to self-soothe.”
Research is limited, but some small studies have backed up the benefits of weighted blankets, including their reported positive effects on anxiety. A 2015 exploratory study in Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, which followed 30 adults during an inpatient mental health hospitalization, found the blankets significantly reduced anxiety in 60% of the patients. Participants reported that the blankets helped them feel safe, comforted, and grounded. (My own experience mirrors that feeling.) An earlier study of 32 adults found that in 33% of users, a weighted blanket lowered blood pressure and pulse rate; 63% reported lower anxiety; and 78% preferred a weighted blanket as a way to calm themselves. Both studies indicated more research is necessary.
As long as the pitter-patter of thoughts in my brain pick up at bedtime, I’ll keep my weighted blanket close. It’s not a cure-all, but as Dr. Barone points out, it doesn’t hurt and may help.