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Weighted Blankets in Autism: Useful for Sleep?
Children with autism present considerable regulation difficulties, including regulating their bodies, thoughts, and emotions. Many parents and therapists report that children with autism may benefit from a weighted blanket to provide constant proprioceptive input to the body, and occupational therapists frequently suggest weighted blankets as part of a therapeutic plan.
Indeed weighted blankets are used in early intervention settings, integrated preschools, and you can purchase some great weighted blankets online. Weighted sensory blankets are used in a variety of ways. For instance, on the lap while children listen to stories or watch shows, and on the body while children nap or sleep for the night. They are used for children with sensory needs, attention regulation needs, and children on the autism spectrum.
A weighted blanket can be a great tool in a larger repertoire of sensory toys designed for babies, toddlers, and bigger kids.
But exactly how useful are weighted blankets at promoting sleep? A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics compared a regular blanket (normal weight) with a weighted blanket in 67 children and adolescents ranging in age from 5 to 16 years. Each child received one blanket for 2 weeks and then switched over to the other blanket for another 2 weeks. Sleep activity was measured using an actigraph. The authors also collected subjective (self-report opinions) data from parents and children regarding how useful the blanket was for their children's sleep.
Interestingly, there was no solid evidence that the weighted sensory blanket improved sleep quality in the autistic children. The actigraph showed that total sleep durations and sleep onset latency were very similar between weighted and regular blankets. In other words, children did not fall asleep sooner or sleep for longer when they had the weighted blanket as opposed to the regular blanket.
However, parents and children both reported that they preferred the weighted blanket for sleep, even though it did not actually improve sleep quality.
Take home message: Weighted sensory blankets do not improve the quality of sleep, including how long it takes a child to fall asleep and how long they sleep. However, children with autism and their parents express some preference for weighted blankets, suggesting that there may be some long-term unrealized advantages in terms of comfort, regulation, and possibly sleep. Note that the present study only investigated blanket use for 2 weeks, and it is possible that sleep benefits of the blanket may take longer to accrue. Also, it is difficult to know whether children kept the blanket on all night, or if it got pushed off early, or if only a small portion of it was actually contacting the body.
In our experience, weighted sensory blankets can be a good option for children who require sensory input in order to aid in motor regulation, relaxation, and maintaining attention. They are definitely worth trying, particularly during daytime activities that involve maintaining a seated posture and attention for more than 5 minutes.
Click here to see some of the best weighted blankets for children with sensory needs. Note that these vary in size to fit toddlers to adolescents. We suggest also checking out our reviews of sensory toys that are great for kids with sensory needs.