What is a Weighted Vest?
A weighted vest is just that: a vest-like garment that is worn over clothing, with some additional weight either sewn into pockets or embedded in the fabric lining. The vest is weighted based on the wearer’s total body weight - a concept similar to a weighted lap pad or weighted blanket.
Weighted Vests and Deep Touch Pressure
A weighted vest provides deep touch pressure (DTP) or proprioceptive input which has a calming, organizing effect on the child. If your child sees an occupational therapist, he/she may have recommended the wearables as part of a comprehensive sensory diet to help children who have sensory processing disorder or self-regulation difficulties.
Deep touch pressure (DTP) has many physiological benefits that promote self regulation. In times of stress, anxiety, or emergency, the sympathetic system of your central nervous system responds with a “fight or flight” reaction. DTP helps to combat that reaction by decreasing the level of cortisol (stress hormone). This effect is most helpful for people who experience stress, anxiety, or fear on a regular basis (anxiety disorders, PTSD, trauma, autism spectrum disorder).
Deep touch pressure also results in increased endorphin levels and releases the “happy hormones” serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate some brain functions and help with mood regulation. It is also known to stimulate parts of the brain that are responsible for sleep and the production of melatonin. Dopamine is a “happy hormone” that controls the reward or pleasure center of the brain. While it regulates our emotional responses and is in action when we set or achieve goals, an excess of dopamine is also linked to risk taking and addiction.
At a physiological level, deep pressure therapy helps the two main systems in the autonomic nervous system balance each other out so as to help with emotional regulation. The increased production of serotonin and dopamine counteract the effects of cortisol to hormonally regulate your body’s response to sensory information.
Researching Weighted Vests
While weighted vests are common recommendations by occupational therapists, the research behind these sensory tools is inconsistent depending on the study conducted (who was involved, how many children were studied, observable changes targeted).
A 2001 study published in American Journal of Occupational Therapy by Nancy L. VandenBerg, found that on-task behavior increased by 18-25% in all four subjects when a weighted vest was worn for tabletop fine motor tasks. Additionally, 3 of 4 subjects asked to wear the weighted vest beyond the testing periods.
Similar positive outcomes were noted in the 2001 study published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy by Doreen Fertel-Daly, Gary Bedell, Jim Hinojosa that looked at the positive effects of weighted vests on attention to task and decreasing self-stimulatory behaviors in preschoolers with Pervasive Developmental Disorder.
The research behind deep touch pressure is supportive for promoting physiological regulation (respiration rate, heart rate, blood pressure) and reducing anxiety. Since the design and purpose of weighted vests and compression vests target the proprioceptive system by increasing the amount of input, it is logical to make the connection that the positive findings of DTP research would also be the case in product-specific research.
Unfortunately, the research on the effectiveness of weighted vests has been inconsistent through the years and additional research is necessary to build consensus. More research is needed to better understand and measure the observable changes with these products - from sensory, behavioral, attention, and social-emotional perspectives. However, subjective data from parents, therapists, and children is overwhelming positive and warrants an individualized approach to exploring weighted vests as sensory tools for your own tool box.
Weighted Vests for Kids
Some of the benefits associated with weighted vests differ based on your own child’s needs, but parents, educators, and therapists report individualized benefits that can include:
Increased seated time on-task
Decreased self-stimulatory behaviors (for children with autism)
Promote calm and organization
Assists with self-regulation
Reduced frequency of sensory overload
Improved body awareness
Increased therapeutic carryover of sensory diet activities
How To Use a Weighted Vest
The theory behind weighted vests is to provide the child with sustained deep pressure input to his/her muscles and joints (proprioception) as this type of sensory input is known to be calming and organizing. When using a weighted vest, it is important to:
Generate a weighted vest wearing schedule in consultation with your child’s OT if he/she has one.
Unfortunately, the research is inconsistent in giving a clear guideline for wearing schedules, however, it is recommended to initially introduce the weighted vest during a preferred activity. If the child should wear the weighted vest for the 20-40 minute activity, be sure to remove the vest for the same time period to allow the nervous system to reset.
Some parents and educators feel that the compression vests are helpful during especially stressful times (i.e. school assemblies, doctor’s appointments). Should your child require additional, more consistent input throughout the day, consider adding a tight-fitting undershirt (lycra-based).
Set up your child’s weighted vest so that it is 5-10% of their body weight.
So, if your child is 40 lbs, the vest weight would be 2-4 lbs. This is important as you do not want to overstrain their bodies with more weight than what is safe. The weight should be evenly distributed as much as possible.
Identify a simple way to measure the effectiveness of the weighted vest.
This can be done with the help of your child’s Occupational Therapist or teacher. Keep in mind what you identified as the “why” behind choosing a weighted vest because this will help identify whether the vest “is working” or not!
How to Choose the Right Weighted Vest
It’s important to consider the material/texture of the vest as well as some of the properties of the fabric:
Some weighted vests have a lycra component that is form-fitting and offers active hugging or compression in addition to having weighted pockets. This may be helpful for children who seek out deep pressure and prefer tight-fitting clothes.
The fabric of the weighted vest is just as important to consider as the wearing schedule and weight factors! Choose fabrics that are preferred and suited to the activity level of your child.
Consider how often your child will be changing in/out of the vest and the easiest way to do that: snaps, zippers, velcro? This will impact the level of independence your child has with putting the vest on or taking it off.
How the vest is weighted will affect washability so consider the construction and design when determining whether the vest will meet your child’s messy eating, crafting, or playing habits!
Tips & Takeaways
Weighted vests can be a helpful tool for children with sensory processing difficulty, anxiety, autism, or trauma-related diagnoses. While the research on weighted vests is variable, the benefits of deep touch pressure are supported by parents, educators, and therapists’ reports. As with any sensory strategy, consider the weighted vest in terms of your child’s individual needs.