Safety • Feb 02, 2015

Weighted Blankets – Avoid a Tragic Mistake

Seven-month-old Owen was found dead in his crib, under the weighted blanket his daycare providers hoped would help soothe him.  Owen fought sleep at daycare, and he had just learned to roll from his back to his belly.  His daycare provider put a weighted blanket over his buttocks and legs, hoping the flax-seed-filled blanket would help him sleep more soundly.  Although she noticed he had rolled onto his belly, she didn’t flip him back over.  She also used a white-noise machine intended to improve infant sleep.  A few hours later Owen was found dead, lying on his stomach, with the weighted blanket bunched up over his waist and bottom and his feet sticking out.  The medical examiner reported the cause of death to be Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.

Owen’s grieving mother and grandmother emailed me, asking me to get the word out about how Owen died, hoping to protect other infants from such tragedy.  When babies won’t sleep, well- meaning people will try almost anything.  Weighted blankets are not the answer.  Good news– there are lots of safe tricks to help babies sleep well.  My colleague Dr. Katie Bucklen has a whole list in her article, “Solving Baby’s Sleep Problems.”

Owen’s daycare center did not ask his parents’ permission to use this weighted blanket.  Does your childcare provider use unsafe sleep aids?

Weighted blankets are used for older children with sensory processing disorders, especially toddlers that have trouble settling down at naptime.  These quilts are filled with flax seeds or other dense material and seem to help some older children fall asleep.  But they are not meant for infants, who are at risk for SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).  We know SIDS is more common in infants who are lying on their abdomen, and risk for SIDS goes up during the weeks after an infant has learned to roll from their back to their belly.  During this high-risk period parents are encouraged to re-position babies on their backs.  Putting a weighted blanket on a baby does the opposite– it keeps the baby on his or her belly.

My colleague Dr. James Kemp has devoted his career to studying pediatric sleep and SIDS.  He called weighted blankets on small infants “a dreadful idea.”

“No one would recommend them for a 7- or 8-month-old,” he said. “To put on anything that impedes their freedom to move when they’re in the prone position is a problem.”

Yet weighted blankets marketed for infants are still on the market.  And there are people who think they help soothe babies who don’t sleep well.  And there are lots of sleep-deprived parents who will try anything to help their baby sleep. Owen’s story tragically shows why pediatricians and sleep experts do not recommend weighted blankets for infants. 

There was a time when we thought we could prevent SIDS by using sleep positioners, wedges, and other devices that prevent infant movement.  Sadly, we know now that sleep positioners are associated with infant suffocation.

Keep infant sleep safe and simple.  Nothing goes into the crib except the baby and a swaddlebabyfitting crib sheet.  It is okay to swaddle a young infant until about four to six months of age, or until they can get out of their swaddle, whichever comes first.

What about babies who spit up while sleeping?  And how can you realistically breastfeed in the middle of the night?  Our mom-pediatricians at St. Louis Children’s Hospital can answer these and all your questions about infant sleep so you can both get a good rest.