newborn baby tightly wrapped in swaddling blanket

by Theresa Fisher | Van Winkle's

A blanket became internet famous.

The blanket in question is the 20-pound, Kickstarter-funded, $279 "Gravity" blanket. Per its Kickstarter campaign, which exceeded its $21,500 goal by more than 10-fold, Gravity is "engineered to be 10% of your body weight to naturally reduce stress and increase relaxation." 

Does the explosive popularity of a nearly $300 bed spread seem like a bit much? Yes. But weighted blankets, in general, are worth a shot for the anxious among us. They've been used as a therapeutic tool for decades. (Although the Gravity blanket itself has no clinically proven effects, despite any vague claims to the contrary.) And I can personally vouch for the calming effects of weighing down your body. I've been doing it for most of my life — I just didn't realize why until a few years ago. 

I like to lounge in high-waisted compression pants. I surround my body with pillows whenever I'm working on my couch. And I always hold objects on my lap — at restaurants, at work, during car rides. In fact, I have trouble concentrating at my desk unless my bag is on my lap. There's a pretty clear theme here: I'm most comfortable when I feel pressure or weight on my body. And this is nothing new. I started clutching my Jansport against my waist back in middle school.

But I only figured out why I liked binding clothing and tight, cozy spaces when I watched the movie "Temple Grandin" a few years ago and realized that my weird habit of holding my bag served the same anti-anxiety function as Grandin's hug machine. And her famous hug machine, I learned, had inspired all sorts of products designed to mimic the comforting sensation of being held tight. Dogs have Grandin-esque Thunder Shirts. Babies have Baby Bjorns and other swaddling gear. And for humans, there are weighted lap pads, belts, wraps and, of course, blankets. 

Healthcare workers, like occupational therapists, have been using weighted blankets as a therapeutic tool for at least 30 years. Originally, they were designed for kids with sensory processing disorders, a common symptom in Autism Spectrum Disorder (among other developmental and mental disorders).

But, at some point in the past few years, online weighted blanket retailers started to reach a wider audience of challenged sleepers. This isn't surprising, given that we live in an age of anxiety, insomnia and expensive, optimized sleep. People are shelling out money for napping classes and all sorts of sleep-promoting, anxiety-relieving doo-dads (wearables, smart pillows and so on). Fancy weighted blankets fit right in. 

"It is precisely that soothing “hug” sensation that a spate of online companies are selling," reported the Canadian news site Maclean's last year. Among other companies, the Maclean's article mentioned Arizona's Weighted Blankets Plus and HippoHug.  

Given their continued therapeutic use, you might assume that the sleep benefits of weighted blankets are backed by solid science. But the evidence that they improve sleep is actually somewhat thin. As I wrote last year:

Researchers have speculated that deep pressure stimulates mood-regulating neurotransmitters including serotonin. The leaden covers resemble bibs worn during dental x-rays. In one 2014 study, UK researchers assessed the value of weighted blankets for improving sleep in Autistic children, who often struggle with shuteye. Objectively, weighted blankets didn’t appear to do much. The children got roughly the same amount of sleep when they slept beneath weighted and airy blankets. But, both the kids and their parents reported a preference for dozing under heavy covers.

But anxiety is a driving factor in many cases of insomnia, particularly for women. And I know that I feel calmer and more focused when I feel slightly compressed. 

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Van Winkle’s is a new website dedicated to exploring how sleep affects and informs our lives, both at night and during the day. Sleep may account for one-third of our time, but it influences us around the clock. Whether it’s sleep as related to science, health, family, pets, sex, or travel, we’re eager to learn more.

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