The idea of weighted gravity blanket therapy, also called deep-touch therapy, goes back to a basic human behavior known to calm us — being held. Clinical studies suggest that when certain pressure points on the body are stimulated by touch, the brain releases serotonin. This neurotransmitter is responsible for regulating various brain functions, including sleep and mood.
The key to this stimulation is the heaviness of the blanket, which is able to create a deep pressure. Aside from swaddles, this kind of pressure is present in hugs and when we stroke animals.
At first, deep touch pressure stimulation was used to help children with ASD or SPD. These kids often experience sensory overload, meaning they have difficulty filtering out background sensory information. This can cause restlessness, anxiety, and trouble participating in seated activities and ongoing tasks. Of course, sleeping can be difficult in this state as well.
Studies have shown weighted gravity blankets can help children with ASD fall asleep. The kids benefit not only from the release of serotonin the blankets bring, but also from the decrease in heart rate and blood pressure that result from the calming effect. This allows for more control, and in turn, a better chance of rest.
Weighted blankets and deep-touch pressure benefits those without a specific sensory disorder as well.
One 2004 study involved participants complaining of sleep dysfunction, stress, and pain, and showed a reduction in nighttime cortisol levels while patients were “grounded” during sleep with weighted blankets. A reduction in cortisol, the primary stress hormone, lead to overall better sleep quality.