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"Heavy" blankets do not help children with autism to sleep

Posted on Wednesday 16th July 2014
Child sleeping

Sleep experts have found that expensive weighted blankets that supposedly help children with autism to sleep better make no difference. 

Professor Paul Gringras, a consultant sleep expert at Evelina London Children’s Hospital and the study’s lead researcher, explains: “These blankets can cost more than £100, so it’s important to know that they actually work. We have found no evidence that they make any difference to these children’s sleep compared with normal weight blankets.”

A total of 73 children aged between five and 16 with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and poor sleep took part in the study carried out by researchers in London, Oxford and York.

1 in 100 children in the UK has ASD, and weighted blankets may be recommended by professionals who work with these children. 

Professor Gringras adds: “Children with autism often sleep poorly compared to their peers. 

“The idea behind these weighted blankets is that the child is reassured by the gentle pressure so is more calm and relaxed. However, this study shows that these blankets don’t seem to improve sleep.”

Deepa Korea, Chief Executive at the charity Research Autism that funded the study, says: “Parents affected by autism tell us they want more research into the things that affect family life, and sleep is often at the top of their list. 

“There are lots of things available that claim to improve quality of life for children with autism. Our families want to see the evidence behind these products so they can make an informed decision about the best ways to support their child.”

The trial was a ‘randomised crossover’ study, which means that the weighted blankets were compared with identical looking and feeling usual weight blankets. After two weeks the blankets were swapped, and the child’s sleep was monitored for another two weeks. 

The children wore a sleep monitor (actigraph) on their wrists that accurately measured the quality and duration of their sleep. Parents also kept a diary about how well they thought their child slept.

The study took place between 2010 and 2013. It was carried out by Evelina London Children’s Hospital, Oxford Brookes University, Lime Trees Child and Family Unit in York, and the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. 

Dr Gringras says: “It’s possible that weighted blankets may relax some children while they’re awake.”

Dr Luci Wiggs, from Oxford Brookes, adds: "There’s still a lot of work to be done in this area. ASD varies a lot from person to person, so it’s possible we may find that some things work for one child but not another.”

The study has been published in the American journal of PEDIATRICS.