Using Weighted Blankets for Kids to Help Regulate Emotional Responses

A pediatric and adolescent Occupational Therapist discusses weighted blankets for children, their different benefits as well as what is the “deep pressure” touch of weighted blankets for kids

As an occupational therapist, I often work with kiddos who struggle with regulating their arousal level throughout the day. The cause of this can vary significantly, from kids who experience sensory processing deficits related to a diagnosis of Autism, SPD, or Down syndrome, to behaviors related to anxiety or ADHD. We often hear parents say, “our child goes from 0-100 in a matter of minutes” or “his reactions never seem to match the size of his problem”. To an Occupational Therapist (OT), this information translates as their child struggling to regulate (or to balance) their emotions and/or arousal level.

weighted blanket for kids

The good news is, there are things that we can do to help these kiddos overpower these struggles! One of the materials that is widely used in the field of occupational therapy is weighted blankets for kids. In its simplest description, a weighted blanket for children is two pieces of fabric sewn together with a heavy filling inside of it. The filling is distributed evenly throughout the weighted blanket for kids via squares that are sewn throughout. When laid upon a child, the overall affect or feeling that results can be comparable to a big warm hug. In fact, many kids report that the weighted blanket for children feels “like a big hug” when they describe it.In the OT world, we call this sensation “deep pressure” touch, providing stimulation to both our tactile and proprioceptive systems.

Our proprioceptive system involves our muscles and our joints. We have sensory receptors located within our muscles and joint spaces which provide feedback to our brain related to where our body is in space and how much pressure is needed to complete given tasks. These receptors provide us with information including our body position in space. To understand what “information” the proprioceptive system gives us, close your eyes and stretch your arms out to the sides. You can “feel” or sense the position of where your arms are related to the rest of your body thanks to your proprioceptive sense. Try opening a new bottle of soda. The amount of pressure that you use to squeeze and twist the lid is determined by your proprioceptive sense or the feedback that your muscles and joints are giving your brain on how hard you need to squeeze.

Our tactile system originates from sensory receptors in the skin. The primary function of the tactile system is to protect us, giving us information about the physical properties of an item, such as its texture and temperature. The tactile system also helps us discriminate information about light or deep pressure. We can determine what might have touched us based on the type of pressure our tactile system experienced. For example, we can discriminate the sensation of a feather lightly touching our skin vs the deep pressure of someone poking our shoulder to ask us a question via our tactile system.
Children with sensory processing deficits often misinterpret sensory information, which causes them to have challenges with responding appropriately to sensory input. When a child is struggling with interpreting sensory information throughout their day, their body may be in a constant “fight or flight” mode as a biological reaction to the stress. These children often experience increased levels of stress hormones and neurotransmitters including Adrenaline, Cortisol, andNorepinephrine, which in turn affect their everyday lives. The behavioral results include children struggling with regulating their arousal level and/or emotions.

So, why does this “deep pressure” sensation seem to be calming and organizing for so many kiddos who have underlying neurological disorders?

Research has shown that hugs release oxytocin, which is a hormone know to act on the limbic system, creating decreased anxiety, feelings of comfort, and decreased stress (National Institutes of Health 2007). In addition to oxytocin, hugs were shown to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. For more information on the link between hugging and the release of dopamine, refer to the work done at the Touch Research University at the University of Miami School of Medicine (2013). When these pleasure hormones are released, our body experiences physiological changes including decreased blood pressure and decreased heart rate. Studies have found that deep pressure stimulation may have a calming effect for children with autism, especially those with high levels of arousal or anxiety (Edelson et al. 1999).

Weighted blankets for kids can be used to provide children with this deep pressure sensation that appears to be extremely beneficial with calming and organizing a child’s sensory system. There are various ways that we can use the weighted blankets for kids within a clinic setting including:

• Setting a weighted blanket for kids on your son or daughter’s lap during “circle time”. This is to help the child remain calm, keep their body still- without fidgeting, and stay with the group
• Lay a weighted blanket for kids over a child during a sensory break in a swing, which allows a child’s sensory system to recoup and reorganize
• Educate parents on using weighted blankets for children at home to help aid in sleep patterns and “calm down” times

If you are interested in using a weighted blanket for kids with your child, please consult with a professional to assess your child’s unique and individual needs and determine if a weighted blanket for kids would be appropriate. An OT will know how to best advise on the uses of the weighted blanket for kids to attend to your child’s specific needs – to ensure they get the most out of it.

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