Be Our Vest, Be Our Vest! We Love Our Weighted Vests!

by Tim on July 6, 2009

[Personal note: I know I haven’t blogged in eons. The chaos of work, the J-Man going on break from school, the serious need to work on some of his behavioral issues, illnesses, and the overall bedlam of baby-parenting have been exhausting. Just wanted to let people know we haven’t died or something!]

The adjustment to life as the Flashlight Four has been a challenging one to say the least. Our primary concern has been how all these changes would affect the J-Man as – not surprisingly – even small variations in routine can be difficult for him, and a new baby in the house is decidedly not a small variation in anything.

Things were going along more or less OK, but then we started noticing some significant changes in his behaviors at home. Nothing aggressive or in any way what you might call ‘negative’. It’s that he was so completely overloaded that he would run around screeching, stimming like crazy, spinning in wild circles, and pretty much literally bouncing off the walls. He couldn’t sit still for more than about two seconds for anything, not even for his favorite shows (which is a sure sign something is amiss).

When his teachers said they were noticing similar changes at school and that it was really affecting him there, we knew we needed to concentrate our full attention on finding something to help him get through this.

His OT at school suggested trying out a weighted vest at school and at home. If you’ve never heard of this, it’s worth getting some background information as we’re now total converts to weighted vests as a tool that may help sensory-overwhelmed kids. (BTW – To use one at school here, it has to be ‘prescribed’ and supervised by the OT as otherwise it’s considered a restraint, which is not permitted. Don’t ask; I don’t understand that rule either.)

I found an article (“Weighted Vests for Children with Sensory Issues”) and some additional information on commercial sites at eSpecial Needs and WeightedVest.com. (Note: I’m not endorsing their products as I know nothing about them, nor about anything advertised on these sites. We made our own vests – more below.) Research on the broader effectiveness of weighted vests hasn’t really been conducted to any real degree, so your mileage may vary for sure. All I can say is that our recent experience has made believers out of us.

We tried a weighted vest about a year ago, but the J-Man just walked around like a drunken sailor with it on. His gross motor skills were much less developed then, and the overall experiment was more or less an interesting failure. I think the added year of development and the resulting additional body weight made a big difference toward the success of our recent work. The OT last year did say that before age 3 is early to be trying this out and expecting to see much benefit. We’re very glad we tried it again now.

We borrowed the vest the OT had (I think her mom had made it) and used it both at school and at home for a couple of weeks. He’d wear it for about 20-30 minutes at a time about every two hours. We always tried to do some heavy proprioceptive sensory work while he was wearing it.

(For those still struggling with autism terminology – ‘proprioception’ is basically the sense most of us take for granted that helps us be aware of where our bodies are and what the various parts of ourselves are doing. Example: I’m aware that I’m currently sitting in this chair and that my butt is firmly in contact with the seat of this chair. Now imagine the chair slowly fading out of existence such that you are still in a seated position but you feel it less and less until you don’t feel it at all. Bet you’d seriously flinch and jump to your feet. Know that sensation of falling you sometimes get when you’re in bed and half asleep? Imagine that your kid feels that way all the time, which they very well might.)

At school, they often have him carry heavy objects around (e.g., old encyclopedias) or jump up and down on the mini-trampoline. He loves our little mini-trampoline at home (more accurately, in the kitchen), so he climbs on it and jumps forever. His current record is 13 straight minutes… And he much prefers it if you sing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and hold his hands while he’s doing it.

The change has been really quite remarkable. One of the teachers said something to the effect of, “We’ve got our old J-Man back!” He really has seemed so much more like himself.

Since commercial weighted vests can be very expensive, we decided to make our own. Or more accurately, we decided to sweet talk Mary’s mom into making them. :-) The basic construction of it is fairly straightforward, but neither of us know how to sew worth anything. Essentially, we (more the ‘royal we’ where we = Mary’s mom) got some heavy denim fabric and some thinner, more decorative fabric to go on top of that, made it into a long vest, and then rolled up the bottom and sewed in pockets to put weights in. Velcro along the back helps fasten it around his body.

Here are some pictures of the J-Man modeling. I thought the chili peppers were an inspired choice.

jman_nemo_vest.jpg

jman_chili_pepper_vest.jpg

For the weights, we took the 1/2-pound inserts out of some adjustable ankle weights (like these) and put one in each pocket. We think these are still too bulky – they make the waist really poof out and hard to velcro closed – but they are still less bulky than the other things we tried such as BBs, sand, pennies, and sinkers (fishing weights). Next things we’re thinking about trying are dense modeling clay and buckshot. (FYI – a digital kitchen scale is a huge help in figuring out the weights and getting them balanced all around the vest, something that’s very important.)

Between the weights and the heavy fabric, the whole thing weighs about 2 1/2 pounds. I’ve heard varying recommendations on how much weight to use, but the consensus of what I’ve been told seems somewhere between 5-10% of the child’s body weight. We’re kind of on the lower end of that right now.

I’d be interested to hear the experiences others have had with weighted vests. If any of this has made you want to try this out, talk to your occupational therapist. You shouldn’t start putting weighted anythings on your child without the supervision of a trained OT who can tell you whether this is appropriate for your child and their needs and what sorts of ‘heavy work’ would be most helpful to them.

As with most things, so much of our learning comes through trial and error, but we definitely feel we have trial and success here!

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

JoyMama July 7, 2009 at 6:53 am

Very snazzy! Ours is less attractive, perhaps, but a very useful tool — wonder if there’s something in the air, because Joy has been all Tigger-y too lately, lots of unauthorized climbing & jumping the past couple of weeks. Her OT built her vest out of a floaty-swim-vest, one of those things that looks a bit like a barrel and has removable floats. Take out the floats, put in the weights, voila. (But then don’t go swimming with it… heh.) For weights we’ve got beanbags stitched to the size of the floaties, plus we then added some doorhinges folded in half and wrapped in duct-tape to blunt the clinking & sharp edges.

We find ourselves using ankle weights in combination with the vest. It’s amazing how mobile she is even with all that weight on, but it definitely helps the Tigger-ish-ness. At least while they’re on, which we’ve been told 30-45 min tops. The effect doesn’t seem to last particularly beyond that, which is counter to the sensory theories. Sigh. But we’ll take what we can get.

Pam July 7, 2009 at 8:09 am

Hey guys, glad to hear the vest is helping (I know Mary from HL forum on Delphi). Another option for weighting it down is stainless steel shot, it won’t rust or corrode like some other metals so you can wash it if you need to. I may have told you this before, at least I meant to at one point. But Connie Fox has a website where you can order it in 1lb packages, its used to polish & clean silver jewelry (you put it in a rock tumbler with the jewelry, some shot, and liquid Dawn dish soap & in 1-4 hours it comes out blindingly sparkly).

Mary July 7, 2009 at 11:09 am

Hey Pam! We thought about using shot, but we can’t find a place to buy it in person, and don’t really want to order something online that might not fit into the pockets. I’ll look it up though, and if it has dimensions, we might try it.

I have also considered going back to the sporting goods store and buying ankle weights in a higher weight, since I think they would have to use heavier whatever they use for the weights (and I think it’s shot!) because you can only make them so big and still fit around the ankle… and then taking apart the individual packets and putting them into 1/2 lb packets that would then be smaller than the ones we have now. (Garbled explanation I know!)
thanks Pam!

Mary July 7, 2009 at 11:13 am

JoyMama, the swim vest thing is SUCH a good idea! I am totes going to tell the J-man’s teachers about it, because they have decided that my mom should branch out and create a business making weighted vests (for less than the $$$ we saw them for online). The swim vest idea is awesome!

I don’t know if the J-man would handle ankle weights well, but he HAS suddenly decided that he must wear shoes ALL THE TIME, whereas before he would come in the door and either have us take them off, or pull them off himself.

Pam July 10, 2009 at 6:06 am

Hi Mary,
I have a ton of shot (not really, I have 2 pounds) and I can tell you that most of it is pretty small. Let me go measure …

The round pieces & things that look like little space ships are 1/8″ in diameter. The oblong things are a little less than 1/8″ in width but almost 1/4″ in length. And the “pins” are just over 1/4″ in length, but only 1/16″ in diameter. It comes in different shapes so that when it hits the jewelry it can ping into all the little crevices & clean even tiny details. I think that means you’d have to sew the pouches with a fairly tight seam to avoid the “pins” from coming out. BTW – pins aren’t sharp, they are just called that for some reason. You can also buy shot without pins, they include the other shapes but not pins.

But it generally isn’t cheap stuff, either. At $20/lb that works out to $40 – $60 per vest. I’d guess my 2 pounds of shot fill a 3-cup bowl (maybe less) so at least it is compact.

Mary July 10, 2009 at 11:12 pm

Pam, you can buy 10lbs of shot for like $16… not with all the special shapes though!

Lisa August 31, 2009 at 9:32 pm

my son who was diagnosed with mild autism has a vest and it is definatly a life saver. So much so I am now an advocate of weighted vest instead of medication for behavior issues. (I hated thinking of medicating my sons because they couldn’t sit still.) It is like night and day when he has it on he concentrates better and he is much calmer. My older son who was diagnosed with ADHD also uses a weighted vest that we bought. It is interesting you all use metal shots I am afraid that my children will end up getting into the weights and hurting themselves (they both have oral motor issues). So we went with rice bags inside vaccumed packed bags for weights. I have also put 2 lb ankle weights inside my younger sons harness pocket for when we go out and he doesn’t want his vest but still wants pressure. They both use it when they can’t calm themselves easily and are hyper we even have the weighted blanket (with polly pellets) that helps them sleep through the night. Before my younger son was waking up every 3 hours to come to mommy in the middle of the night to be squished. I admit I only came to the weighted products when not only my OT suggested it but my PT as well because my son was toe walking. It is wonderful in getting the children to bed with it. My son also used to walk around the Los Angeles Zoo all day and not be tired at 10 at night. We call it the magical vest… with so many reasons to wear it why wouldn’t we get it on all of our kids.

Mary September 2, 2009 at 2:31 pm

Lisa,

we ended up not using shot after all. I bought another set of ankle weights, only the 10lb set this time. Each little bag of removable weights were 1 lb each, and they were only a smidgen bigger than the 1/2 lb bags were from the 5lb set. We cut the bag open and measured out 1/2 lb (ish) of the weight-dust stuff (technical term there) using a digital scale, then put it into a snack sized ziptop baggie, and then put that into a cloth pouch and sewed it shut. (When I say “we” I mean my mom!) That made the weights much more compact this time.

Yeah, I too was wary of the idea of the weighted vests, but have been really pleased with the results!

Tim September 12, 2009 at 11:31 am

Lisa – those removable weight inserts in those ankle weights contain something that looks kinda like really dark sand, except it’s finer than sand, almost like talc but not quite. I assume this is to allow it to pack as tightly as possible. We tried play sand, but it wasn’t fine or dense enough to make enough weight without being way too bulky.

I have no idea where one would buy just that stuff on its own. We cut open the weight packets, poured the sandy/talc-y stuff into ziploc snack bags (weighed out using a kitchen digital scale to make sure they were all the same weight), put the snack bags into fabric pouches Mary’s mom made, and then sewed those up. This was the only filler we could find to make 1/2-lb weights for the vest that were small enough to both fit in the vest pockets and not make the thing really bulky, which was the problem with everything else we tried.

We made some other mods to the vest that hopefully I’ll get around to writing up at some point. Just so far behind around here! But we think we’ve improved this particular design about as well as we can.

I do think some kids ultimately need some level of medication help – perhaps just for a short time, perhaps not – but I also think on the whole we likely overmedicate them for things where there are better approaches. Every kid is different and has to be evaluated that way to find the approach that’s best for them. Ours has been to look at medication as something to ponder when everything else has been exhausted, and we don’t think we’re there. But I know some families where medication has been the difference between some progress with the meds and a nightmare without them.

That’s why we share information like this! Collectively we can more readily find out what’s best for our kids than we can on our own!

JoyMama November 16, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Just linked back to this post from a new post over at Elvis Sightings — we’ve found a fishing vest that comes in sizes from toddler through adult and makes an even classier do-it-yourself weighted vest than the swim vest did! It looks like a real piece of clothing and has a bunch of pockets for the weight. Love to have new options! (Wondering if the vest is still in J-Man’s sensory tool kit? Has he outgrown the initial vests?)

Tim November 21, 2010 at 6:51 pm

@JoyMama – Great idea with the fishing vest! How’s it working with that pocket in the back? We designed ours with the exact same pockets front and back since everyone make a point to tell us the weight had to be distributed symmetrically. We might have been over-exact with it. I don’t know how strict one has to be with that.

A weighted vest is still on J’s IEP, but we haven’t used it in a long while. He doesn’t much care for shirts in general, so a vest just isn’t on his agenda. He doesn’t seem to need it right now, but we’ll try again if the need arises. Thanks again for the vest idea!

JoyMama November 24, 2010 at 11:58 am

Good point about the distribution of weight. We did pay some attention to that — put the bulkier/lighter beanbags in front, and the denser/flatter door hinges in the back pocket. The entire endeavor, while I am in full agreement about working under the supervision of an OT, seems to be a little thin on evidence base… I don’t think anyone really knows how strict is too strict. We may have erred on the side of not-strict-enough.

So interesting to see the progression in a year and a half from “we love our weighted vest!” to “just isn’t on his agenda.” Things ebb and flow like that, don’t they?!

Jean June 25, 2013 at 12:14 pm

After reading what you have tried for weights I thought I would let you know what I have used and really like the out come.
If I could send you a picture I would. I have made my grand-daughter a weighted blanket and lap pad. I am not going to make her a weighted vest.
I am not really a sewer but decided I know enough to do this kind of thing. To purchase these products is expensive and not that cute. Being a little girl we want her to have the same kind of cute things as her sisters.
So after looking every where in craft stores and on line and reading testimonies like yours I ended up at the dollar store and bought glass beads. There tiny and feel like what bean bag stuffed animals feel like. The products are washable so that’s nice.
Be blessed !

tlj August 1, 2014 at 1:13 am

My son made his own weight jacket. He took and cut holes in the lining of a jacket he liked (does this with every coat) places things special to him inside and adds until the weight is right for him.

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