Tiredness is a particularly modish malaise. Sleep deprivation has become a badge of honour for many office workers, while world-weariness has itself become a tired cliché on social media. Last year “Why We Sleep”, a book by Matthew Walker, a British neuroscientist, shot to the top of bestseller lists, its success amounting to a cry for help from the flagging masses. In fact, studies suggest that we probably don’t sleep any less than our parents and grandparents, but the number of hours worked by the average American and Briton has risen in recent years, which may contribute to the perception that we are catching fewer Zs. In response, an array of baffling gadgets promising to help us sleep longer and better – from smart mattresses to sleep-tracking watches – has appeared. Recently, a more analogue sleeping aid has eclipsed these devices in popularity: the weighted blanket.
These heavy duvets, stuffed full of tiny glass beads, have been around for decades. Many autistic people say that being swaddled by them – a sensation akin to a hug or a massage – calms them down. As a child growing up in the Fifties, Temple Grandin, an American academic with autism, noticed that cattle on her aunt’s ranch relaxed when they were tightly restrained in metal traps. She built her own version of this “squeeze machine”, a wooden chute which held her tightly, and found that it soothed her, too. Since then Grandin has championed “deep-pressure therapy” as a way of reducing stress and anxiety in autistic children. Deep pressure can be applied by a squeeze machine – or a blanket.
In 2017 Gravity Blanket, an American firm, saw an opportunity to sell these blankets to a wider public. Its Kickstarter campaign raised $5m-worth of orders, sparking an unlikely craze and spawning countless imitations. Last year Google searches for “weighted blanket” peaked in the same week as Black Friday sales, and TIME magazine named the Gravity Blanket as one of its favourite inventions of 2018 (even though similar products have been around for years). Perhaps predictably, the trend inspired a backlash. Last December, The Atlantic published an article bemoaning how the “Instagram-shopping masses” had co-opted a device invented to help autistic people cope. An autistic writer fired back a retort last month on Slate entitled, “You Can’t ‘Culturally Appropriate’ a Weighted Blanket”. And with that, a surprisingly snuggly front opened up in the internet’s culture wars. As it happens, I’ve been struggling to stifle my yawns lately, so I decided to impress my editor by asking if I could catch up on some sleep with a weighted blanket for a bedfellow.
Gravity Blanket sent me a nine-kilogram monster of a duvet. The company recommends that customers buy blankets weighing around a tenth as much as you do, and I’ll admit to over-indulging this Christmas. Lugging my blanket home (any sleep benefits it may have must, I thought, come from how knackering it is to carry around), I was sceptical. As a child my mother used to tuck me into bed so tightly that getting up in the morning required an act of Houdini-style escapology. Rather than sending me into a deep slumber, it just made me hot and restless. I fully expected the weighted blanket to do the same.
Reading Gravity Blanket’s website didn’t do much to allay my suspicions. It insists that the blanket helps you to drop off faster and sleep more deeply by increasing the levels of serotonin and melatonin (both chemicals related to relaxation) in the body and decreasing the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone. These are impressive claims, although the science behind them is murky. Studies into the blanket’s effect on adults are sparse and those cited by the company aren’t definitive – one examined its effects on just 32 people and didn’t include a control group.
But as I settled down on the sofa, nestling under the grey micro-fibre fabric with a book and a cup of tea, I put all these doubts to the back of my mind. Gravity Blanket could be the Theranos of throws for all I cared, so long as it moved me into the fast lane to Nod. (My exposé, “Weighty Issues: Secrets and Lies in a Soft-Furnishings Startup”, is yet to be commissioned.) Besides, with a price tag of $249, the blanket is reassuringly expensive. Discerning consumers would surely weed out an overpriced flop, right?
The weight of thousands of beads pressing down on me made my limbs feel strangely achy and fatigued. After about 40 minutes I jerked awake to find the book had slid out of my hands and knocked the tea over. After a long day at the office, even the lightest of blankets could lull me into a nap, but I took this as a promising – if soggy – sign that the Gravity Blanket might wield some special power over me.
Taking the blanket to bed, I slid beneath it and felt it press me into the mattress. It was less like a soothing hug than a drunken paramour passing out on top of me – in other words it wasn’t entirely unpleasant but also not how I’d imagined my evening ending. Buried under the blanket, I got very warm but I drifted off happily enough. The next morning I woke up feeling fresh. Crucially, I slept uninterrupted – a rare occurrence when your single-glazed window overlooks the main thoroughfare into south London.
Since then, the blanket has kept me company for a few weeks, and while I can’t say for sure that the quality of my sleep is better, it does seem less easily disturbed. If weighted blankets make us feel a little cosier and more secure, that seems like no bad thing. Maybe my mother was right to tuck eight-year-old me in so forcefully after all. Though I have to say: she didn’t charge $249 for the privilege.