The Science of Weighted Blankets + How They Help Promote Sleep

Let’s talk about a little thing called “deep touch pressure therapy.”

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At first glance, a weighted blanket might not seem intuitive, especially if you’re one of those people who like to sleep under just a thin blanket or sheet. Who wants to be constrained under a heavy blanket??

But look at it this way: Think of how babies like to be tightly swaddled when they sleep, how cozy it is when a cat curls up on your lap, or how soothing it is to have a cuddle sesh with your significant other. Or the fact that anxious dogs often benefit from “calming vests” during noisy thunderstorms. If you can imagine that feeling, you already understand the concept behind weighted blankets.

See, it’s a little thing called “deep touch pressure therapy.” Whenever something is putting gentle pressure on your body (whether it’s a hug or a warm cat or a compression garment), it has the ability to help you relax. (Maybe that’s why form-fitting yoga pants are so comfy?)

Deep touch pressure therapy is a concept typically used for treatment of sensory processing disorders, autism spectrum disorder, anxiety disorders, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The relaxing sensation caused by deep touch pressure therapy can soothe the symptoms created by these disorders and—in the case of weighted blankets—help them sleep.

But how? Deep touch pressure therapy activates the parasympathetic nervous system—which is kind of like the opposite of your sympathetic nervous system. When you’re under stress, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in: It increases your heart rate and blood pressure, makes you sweat, and gives you that “fight or flight” feeling.

Conversely, your parasympathetic nervous system is what calms you down. It regulates your heart rate and blood pressure. It also releases feel-good endorphins (like serotonin and dopamine) in an attempt to relax you. That’s why you feel so good after finishing a scary movie or getting off a rollercoaster: After surviving the scary part, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and tells you everything is a-OK.

Weighted blankets (and other types of deep touch pressure therapy) tell that parasympathetic nervous system to work its magic. Weighted blankets don’t feel heavy; instead, they feel like very gentle pressure around the entire body, like a full-body hug. As a result, you feel calm, safe, and relaxed—which happens to be the ideal state for falling asleep.

Don’t worry about feeling too hot under a weighted blanket. These blankets are designed to be comfortable in a variety of temperatures. To achieve this, they’re actually filled with tiny beads (not hot, stuffy fabric). The beads help add weight to the blanket without making you roast underneath.

Although the weighted blanket was originally designed to help children with autism and sensory processing disorders, they’ve become more popular recently to improve sleep in general. If you have a sleep disorder or find it difficult to sleep at night—especially due to anxiety-related insomnia—you might benefit from a weighted blanket.

Need more sleep tips?