Weighted blankets use deep touch pressure stimulation (DTP) which encourages the brain to release serotonin. Picture: Pexels
Weighted blankets have long been used as a sensory tool for children with autism spectrum disorder.

It’s been clinically proved that the deep-touch pressure stimulates and promotes the release of serotonin - the chemical that regulates sleep.

Now parents to fussy newborns and toddlers have discovered the wonders of using it for the same reason. Its popularity has picked up in the past year, with Pinterest reporting a 259% increase in saved pins for weighted blankets.

But there’s a possible danger in following trends, especially when it comes to the physical well-being of your child. To understand the therapy, we need to look at the science behind it. 

Weighted blankets use deep-touch pressure stimulation. This is a gentle pressure applied to the body that mimics the feeling of being held, stroked, hugged and swaddled.

The gentle pressure encourages the brain to release serotonin which promotes relaxation and mental well-being. But unlike a regular blanket, this one is filled with pellets.

“The pellets give the blanket its weight, which should generally be around 10% of the user’s body weight,” says Donna Chambers from custom weighted blanket manufacturer Sensa Calm.

It all sounds like a marketer’s big fluffy dream, right? And while well-rested parents are posting adorable images of their sleeping babies on Instagram and leaving glowing reviews online, not much empirical research points to evidence that it really works.

The closest study that draws conclusive results was led by Dr Temple Grandin in 1992. Called “Calming Effects of Deep Touch Pressure in Patients with Autistic Disorder, College Students, and Animals”, Grandin invented the “squeeze” or “hug box”, based on her research and experience of an adult living with autism.

She discovered that the deep-touch pressure of the box reduced stimulating behaviour in children diagnosed with autism and ADHD. In Temple’s case, she “used to crawl under sofa cushions and have my sister sit on them”.

Here’s where the big “but” comes in Occupational therapist Molly Shaw Wilson is an adviser to Harkla, a small US company dedicated to providing products and resources for raising children with special needs. 

She warned that weighted blankets weren’t recommended for children under the age of two. Keeping that in mind, the average size of a toddler between the ages of two to three is between 9kg and 14kg, the recommended weight (10 percent of body weight) would be no more than 2.2kg.

“It’s an easy decision to want to try one, as long as you are educated about its use,” she said. “Compared to other sleeping tools/aids/protocols, they aren’t prescribed by a doctor, don’t involve medication with potential side effects, or come with a detailed behavioural plan that is hard to carry out.” 

A weighted blanket might help to ease restless children, but don’t look to it as a magic pill. “You should consult your paediatrician to make sure your child is old enough to safely use a weighted blanket,” advised Sensa Calm.