By: Kelly Nesbitt, MOT, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist
Weighted blankets have become very popular in the past year, not only for children with sensory processing difficulties and Autism, but also with “neurotypical” adults. It’s hard to go online or browse the aisles of Walmart without seeing ads for weighted blankets touting an improved night’s sleep or improved mood. So what exactly is the hype around weighted blankets and why do they help children with Autism or other sensory processing issues?
What are weighted blankets?
Weighted blankets are usually big plush blankets filled with some sort of pellet to make it heavier (depending on what type of blanket you buy or make, they are usually filled with plastic, sand, steel shot beads, plastic poly pellets, micro-beads, etc.)
They can range in weight from a couple pounds to about 20 pounds and can be made out of just about any type of fabric imaginable! Weighted blankets can be worn on the lap to help a fidgety child calm down in order to sit at the table for a meal with family, help ease anxiety during a car ride, or help lull a child to sleep.
Weighted blankets for children should not exceed 10% of their body weight for safety (weighted blankets should be a comfortable compression, not so heavy that they cannot be easily taken off by a child). These blankets are used for calming input to help a child “slow their body down,” not to be so heavy as to inhibit movement.
What’s the theory behind weighted blankets?
Weighted blankets can have a calming effect when worn over the body for the same reason that your child would seek a big hug when they are upset. This weight provides deep tactile input to the skin, joints, and muscles that tells your child’s brain to relax.
According to the American Sleep Association, deep tactile input provided from weighted blankets tells our central nervous system to switch from our “fight or flight” sympathetic state of being anxious and panicky to our “rest and recharge” parasympathetic state where our heart rates slow and we are able to calm ourselves down. Deep tactile input causes the body to release serotonin in the brain, a feel-good neurotransmitter that creates a sense of calm and well-being.
For children with Autism Spectrum Disorders or sensory processing difficulties, it is really hard to get their bodies to move from this “fight or flight” to “rest and recharge” state on their own. Occupational Therapists are trained in identifying strategies to help the central nervous system to calm through the use of movement, tactile, olfactory, visual, auditory, and proprioceptive input. Weighted blankets can be an effective modality to help accomplish this.
Store Bought vs. Homemade
There are a plethora of store-bought options for weighted blankets that range from relatively cheap to extremely pricey. Whether you purchase or make your weighted blanket should be based upon how much time you have available as well how much you want to spend. Both store bought or homemade options can have the same calming effect.
Regardless, like any other blanket, it should be washed occasionally. Make sure that the materials you purchase are conducive to being either machine or hand washed without destroying the blanket. For example, your blanket is filled with sand or rice, it would be a good idea to purchase a cover to go over the blanket so that it may be removed and washed.
Where to Shop
There are so many options for weighted blankets online and in store. Here’s a list of a couple choices that I have suggested to families in the past (ask your Occupational Therapist which companies they prefer and have had good experiences with).
- Amazon: Amazon has a large selection of blankets that range from $50-$100. Be sure to check individual seller’s policies on returns and weight specifications.
- Fun and Function: This therapy product website has weighted comforters, blankets, sleeping bags, and lap pads with fun designs and textures that are kid-friendly.
- Support groups: Parent support groups on Facebook often either personally know someone who makes great blankets or knows what companies make the best ones for a fair price. (For clients at Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley, ask your Occupational Therapist about weighted blankets created by Easterseals families that are low to no cost!)
How to Make Homemade Weighted Blankets
Because I am always a fan of saving a few bucks and getting a little crafty, I usually tell my client’s families to try making a weighted blanket on their own. If a family is up for it, I recommend buying a duvet cover and going to a craft store such as Joann Fabrics or Michaels to purchase filler material. The duvet can then be sown shut and you can place another cover on top of the filled duvet so that the outer layer can be easily washed.
Making your own also lends itself to making a blanket that would exactly fit your child’s interests. You can purchase durable, washable fabrics with your child’s favorite characters on it. There are also online instructions for how to make your own blanket, like this one from Quality Plastic Pellets. Make sure to remember the rule for the weight of the blanket… make sure it weighs at most 10% of the child’s body weight.
Aromatherapy and Weighted Blankets
For an extra calming sensory experience, you can even add aromatherapy scents to your weighted blanket. Of course, make sure that the child enjoys the scent and is not bothered by this olfactory input prior to adding it to the blanket. Scents such as lavender, vanilla, chamomile, and bergamot can have a calming effect and can help with inducing sleep. Aromatherapy oils can be purchased at your local drug store. Click here to read more about adding aromatherapy to weighted blankets.
Whether you want to buy or make your own, weighted materials can be trialed in therapy sessions to see if the child has a positive, calming response with its use. Your Occupational Therapist will collaborate with you to consider what textures your child can tolerate in fabrics, if the sound of the material inside the blanket could be irritating, and when it would be most beneficial for the child to use the blanket.
Choosing a weighted blanket can be both an art and a science; if you are interested in trialing a weighted blanket for your child, feel free to ask your child’s Occupational Therapist about it!
For more information about Occupational Therapy services at Easter Seals, visit: http://www.easterseals.com/dfv/our-programs/medical-rehabilitation/occupational-therapy.html