A noisy environment can disrupt sleep and increase the risk of long-term health effects. The World Health Organization recommends keeping environmental noise levels below 40 decibels at night. Unfortunately, depending on where you live, it may be impossible to ensure a sufficiently quiet bedroom environment.
There is growing interest in using sounds such as music and white noise to reduce the effects of environmental noise. Using sound to improve sleep is an easy, low-cost method with few known side effects. Research so far demonstrates that certain sounds may help people relax for sleep and improve sleep quality, so it’s worth examining how to do so, as well as what sounds work best for sleep.
The best sound to fall asleep to depends on your personal preference, as well as your sleep environment and the nature of your sleep problems. You can experiment with smartphone apps, white noise machines, and other methods to find a sound that helps you sleep. Be sure to turn off notifications if you bring your phone into the bedroom.
Listening to sounds before sleep may not work for everybody. If your bedroom is completely quiet, you may not need to use any sounds for sleep. Similarly, some people may find that wearing earplugs is enough to block out disruptive noises.
To reduce the impact on your hearing, set sleep sounds to a safe volume and consider programming them to turn off in the middle of the night. Outside noises are most disruptive in the hours after falling asleep and shortly before waking up.
While more research is needed, recent studies suggest listening to music, nature sounds, white and pink noise, meditation soundtracks, and tracks utilizing autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) triggers may help people sleep.
Although there is conflicting evidence, some studies have found that music may decrease the time it takes to fall asleep, improve self-reported sleep quality, and increase the proportion of deep sleep.
In a recent review, researchers concluded that using music for sleep might be most effective after regularly keeping up the habit for at least three weeks. The authors proposed that integrating music into the bedtime routine gradually teaches the brain to associate bed with relaxation instead of anxiety. In another study, participants also reported that listening to music for sleep could help mask outside noises.
Most playlists that are marketed for sleep feature slow, calming music. However, surveys have found that people use many different types of music to fall asleep. The best music for sleep may depend on your personal preference.
Research suggests that listening to nature sounds may help induce relaxation for people who have trouble winding down for bed. In one study, researchers found that listening to nature sounds helped reduce nighttime awakenings, improved sleep quality, and reduced the time taken to fall asleep for people in the hospital.
Research suggests that sudden increases in noise are especially disruptive to sleep. Continuous white noise may be useful for masking the effects of noisy interruptions, such as doors slamming or cars honking, so the sleeper is less likely to wake up.
White noise is technically defined as sound that contains equal levels of every frequency. This even distribution is thought to help reduce the brain’s reactivity to spikes in volume. However, in practice, people use a wide variety of steady sounds to block out interruptions. These include the sound of air conditioners, vacuum cleaners, and other machines, in addition to specialized white noise sound machines.
Preliminary research suggests that playing pink noise during sleep may optimize brain waves to improve sleep quality.
Whereas white noise includes all the frequencies at equal volumes, pink noise assigns lower volumes to higher frequencies. The result is similar to the sound of ocean waves, which some people may find more pleasing than white noise.
Meditation appears to improve sleep by helping people relax at bedtime. In particular, mindfulness meditation, or focusing on the present in a non-judgmental way, may help improve sleep quality and reduce time awake in bed.
A number of smartphone apps contain meditation soundtracks specifically designed to help sleep. Soundtracks may include narrative storylines, relaxing soundscapes, or content intended to improve attitudes surrounding sleep. Preliminary evidence suggests these apps may contribute to better sleep quality and reduced next-day sleepiness.
There is growing interest in the use of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) soundtracks for sleep. Proponents of ASMR claim that triggers such as whispering or crisp sounds provoke feelings of well-being that can be conducive to sleep. A variety of ASMR soundtracks can be found on Youtube and other video platforms.
Tips to Optimize Your Bedroom Environment for Sleep
In addition to controlling noise levels, there are several other changes you can make to sleep better at night. Ways to improve your bedroom environment include:
- Keeping the bedroom comfortably cool
- Using curtains or an eye mask to ensure a dark sleep environment
- Reserving the bed for sleep or sex only
- Optimizing the bed with a comfortable mattress and pillows
- Leaving bright screens out of the bedroom
Talk to your doctor if you continue to experience problems sleeping after making adjustments to your bedroom environment. You may have an undiagnosed sleep disorder, which needs to be addressed in its own right.
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Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!