Weighted blankets are trendy, but will they help your child fall asleep?

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The growing popularity of weighted blankets
ABOVE: The growing popularity of weighted blankets – Feb 18, 2019

Weighted blankets are all the rage right now.

These blankets are supposed to mimic deep pressure touch stimulation and have a calming and soothing effect. Often, they are used by those who have a hard time sleeping through the night — but are they safe for children?

READ MORE: Can’t fall asleep? How to create the perfect sleep environment

“If you’re stressed or you have bad sleep habits, you’ll have trouble falling asleep and will likely have anxiety around bedtime,” Evelyne Martello, a sleep clinic nurse at the CIUSS du Nord-de-l’Ile-de-Montreal previously told Global News.
“A weighted blanket will help to quiet down your neurotransmitters [that are fired by anxiety or stress] and help you feel more secure, thus improving your sleep.”
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Martello says weighted blankets are often used to help children who are on the autism spectrum, and may suffer from neurological, medical or behavioural issues. It can help comfort them and allow them to fall asleep faster.

Click to play video: 'The growing popularity of weighted blankets'
The growing popularity of weighted blankets

There is some evidence to show that using weight as a calming strategy can be effective.

“Weighted blankets have been around for a long time, especially for kids with autism or behavioural disturbances,” Dr. Cristina Cusin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said in an interview with Harvard Health Publishing.

“It is one of the sensory tools commonly used in psychiatric units. Patients who are in distress may choose different types of sensory activities — holding a cold object, smelling particular aromas, manipulating dough, building objects, doing arts and crafts — to try to calm down.”

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READ MORE: Still feel tired after a good night’s sleep? You may have hypersomnia

However, there is little research to prove weighted blankets actually help adults, and there’s way less research on children.

One small 2014 study analyzed the effect of weighted blankets on sleep in children with autism spectrum disorder. Seventy-three children between the ages of five and 16 participated in the randomized controlled trial — “the gold standard type of trial,” said Dr. Jennifer Poon, a behavioural pediatrician at the Medical University of South Carolina.

One group was given weighted blankets while the other was given a placebo, and the results were clear: “It did not help them fall asleep faster, and it did not help them stay asleep [or] wake less often,” said Poon.
Click to play video: 'Ask The Doctor: Insomnia and other sleep troubles'
Ask The Doctor: Insomnia and other sleep troubles

“I think the question people had looking at this paper … was: Is this more of a placebo effect?”

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Anecdotally, in her work with families of children with disabilities, autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, Poon has found similar results.

“I’ve had families who favour [weighted blankets] and I’ve had families who have said it hasn’t done a thing,” she said.

READ MORE: Oversleeping can increase your risk of stroke by up to 85 per cent, study says

As a pediatrician, Poon always warns parents of the potential risks associated with weighted blankets.

“One, [we need to make sure] that the child can’t open the blanket, take out the weights and swallow them,” she said. “Two, from the suffocation standpoint … if the child isn’t able to move outside of [the blanket] because it’s too heavy, that poses suffocation risk.”
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Most weighted blankets come with a recommended weight standard.

Global News contacted Endy, a Canadian mattress company that makes weighted blankets, and a spokesperson said their product is recommended for adult use only.

“It is recommended that a weighted blanket be approximately 10 per cent of a person’s body weight,” said the company. “Our weighted blanket comes in one weight, which is 15 pounds, making it too heavy for most kids.”

Beware the wellness market

Products like weighted blankets have become somewhat trendy, popping up at big retailers like Indigo. On sites like Amazon Canada, anxiety relief products range from necklaces to mists to candles or even teas.

The stigma around the mental health disorder is slowly disappearing, Dr. Katherine Martinez of AnxietyBC previously told Global News, but these products are showing up in the wellness market because of our hectic world.

“We are in a much more fast-paced existence, especially in urban areas,” she said.

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She adds being part of this world means wanting to deal with mental health issues quickly, and although she is hesitant to use the phrase, she says some of us look for a “quick fix.”

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“You can get everything at your fingertips, so why wouldn’t we have the ability to calm the system?”

The target consumers of this space are also often vulnerable, she adds, and when products highlight relief, some may be willing to spend hundreds of dollars to make things work.

Some anxiety bracelets and necklaces on Amazon, for example, can cost up to $100, and for some, she adds, this could seem like a good investment for their health.

READ MORE: ‘You’re going to see a different kid’ — Why sleep should come before activities

“If it sounds too good to be true… it probably is. Do your research.”

And while she argues a product won’t cure anxiety, it can offer some relief. Studies have shown, she adds, things like exercise are proven to help people with mild depression and anxiety. Often, it’s about talking to your doctor to see what the best options are.

“Start with the evidence first and use [these products] with your eyes wide open.”
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What happens when kids lack sleep

Not only is a child’s behaviour affected by a lack of sleep, so is their ability to perform in school.

One 2016 study showed a child’s developing brain regions are “hardest hit by sleep deprivation.” Another study found poor sleep was tied to lower academic performance.

“Research shows that having a clear mind is worth more than sometimes studying,” Loewen Nair, parenting expert and co-founder of London, Ont.-based Infinity School, previously told Global News.

“Being able to think requires a good amount of rest.”

Alternative sleep aids for children

In her work, Poon is often asked for safe sleep aids for children.

She has four recommendations:

  1. Keep a routine, even on weekends. “[Use phrases like] ‘time to bed, time to wake’ as much as possible, and saying them seven days a week,” said Poon. “Try to avoid sleeping in on weekends, because that can disrupt our sleep cycle.”
  2. Create soothing bedtime rituals. Calming activities like reading or having a bath, if done at the same time each day, can help a child fall asleep more easily.
  3. Avoid caffeine. “Even things you might forget are caffeinated, like chocolate, coffee-flavoured ice cream and, of course, caffeinated beverages like [pop],” she said.
  4. Avoid screens before bed. “Anything from TV to phones to tablets … and leaving the TV on before bedtime,” said Poon. She recommends turning off all screens one to two hours before bedtime.

— With files from Global News’ Arti Patel & Laura Hensley

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