Nearly half of people in the United States report sleep troubles. Sleep disruptions can come from a variety of sources, including stress, illness, and daytime activities. People living in busy homes, large cities, or high traffic areas may also find that noise prevents them from getting a good night’s sleep.
Minimizing sounds in the bedroom is an important part of creating an environment that is conducive to sleep. When the source of noise cannot be turned off or removed from the bedroom, adding white noise may help reduce the impact of bothersome sounds.
What Is White Noise?
White noise is a blend of all audible frequencies played at the same time with the same intensity. While some people use the term to describe any background noise, white noise is a specific sound that is sometimes compared to radio static.
Experts suggest that white noise makes other sounds in the environment less noticeable because of its effects on a person’s hearing threshold. Hearing threshold describes how loud a sound must be before it is picked up by the listener. White noise masks other sounds by raising a person’s hearing threshold, so noises below this level are less likely to be perceived.
Does White Noise Help With Sleep?
Adding white noise is a popular strategy for improving sleep, but research studies have produced mixed results.
Early research from the 1970s to the 1990s showed that listening to white noise may help calm restless babies and help infants fall asleep faster. Early studies in adults suggested that white noise may delay REM sleep and increase time spent in periods of light sleep.
While some recent studies have shown little to no benefit to using white noise, others suggest that white noise may help adults fall asleep faster and improve sleep quality for patients in intensive care units.
Although additional research is needed to understand the effect of white noise on sleep, the use of white noise is recommended by some experts. White noise is suggested as a method to improve sleep in a variety of populations, including infants, shift workers, and hospitalized patients.
Short-term use of white noise is generally considered safe, though some white noise machines are able to produce sound loud enough to cause hearing damage over time.
White Noise for Babies and Children
Up to 30% of children have significant trouble falling and staying asleep. Introducing white noise into a child’s bedroom is one strategy that caregivers may use to help babies and children sleep more soundly.
While using white noise is recommended by some experts, parents may be surprised to learn that few studies have demonstrated a benefit of white noise for infants and children. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents against claims made by companies marketing infant white noise machines.
Loud noises, including white noise, have the potential to cause hearing loss in children. Unfortunately, many infant white noise machines have been found to produce sound loud enough to damage an infant or child’s hearing. Based on these findings, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that caregivers take several steps for safer use of devices that produce white noise:
- Place the white noise machine far away from the bed or crib
- Turn the volume down to a low level
- Only use white noise machines for a short time
Caregivers with questions or concerns about using white noise to help a child sleep should contact a pediatrician for additional information and support.
Brown Noise vs. White Noise
Brown noise is another type of sound that people may use to improve their sleep. While white noise maintains a similar intensity among the audible frequencies, brown noise decreases in intensity with each octave. There is little research on the effect of brown noise on sleep, though a small study suggests that it may increase relaxation.
What Is Brown Noise?
Brown noise, which is also called Brownian noise, is named after a botanist who first identified a phenomenon called Brownian motion. Brownian motion describes the random movements seen in particles within a medium, like pollen suspended in water. When applied to sound, Brownian motion produces a noise that is deeper than white noise. Some people compare brown noise to the sound of rain or a waterfall.
White Noise vs. Other Sounds for Sleep
The optimal sounds for sleep are different for everyone, so it may be helpful for sleepers to experiment with different options. Other sounds to consider include music, nature sounds, and guided meditations.
- Music: Over 60% of people report using music to enhance their sleep. Studies suggest that listening to music at bedtime may improve sleep quality, especially if used consistently over several weeks.
- Nature sounds: Listening to the sounds of nature may help sleepers destress and relax before bed.
- Guided meditations: Relaxation techniques, like meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation, are common tips to help people fall asleep. Although research is limited, some studies have shown that listening to guided meditations improve sleep quality and reduce next-day fatigue.
Tips for Using White Noise to Get a Better Night’s Sleep
Whether you are looking to mask a noisy sleep environment or just get a better night’s sleep, white noise may be a helpful addition to your sleep routine. Tips for improving sleep hygiene include avoiding activities that make sleep more difficult, adequately preparing for sleep each night, and optimizing your sleep environment.
- Set your bedtime: Getting to bed at the same time every night helps your body wind down and prepare for sleep.
- Find calming evening activities: Soothing activities such as reading a book, taking a bath, or drinking a warm beverage can help you relax before bed.
- Prepare your sleep environment: Optimize your room by adjusting the temperature and blocking out any light. Choose a mattress and bedding that feel comfortable and inviting.
- Set your white noise: Whether you choose to use an app on your phone or a white noise machine, set the device to the ideal volume just before turning off your lights.
White Noise Machines
Many white noise machines are available for purchase. There are a number of factors to take into consideration when purchasing a white noise machine, including cost, volume control, and features that allow you to customize your bedtime experience.
- Cost: White noise machines can range in cost, so take your budget into account when choosing between models.
- Volume control: Look for a white noise machine that has adjustable volume so you can set it to a safe level.
- Sleep timer: Sleep timers allow users to choose when the white noise machine turns itself on and off. This feature may be helpful for those concerned about prolonged exposure to background noise.
- Other sounds: White noise machines may provide a variety of sounds. If you have not used white noise before, it may be helpful to find a machine that provides different sounds to help you find one that works best for you.
White Noise Apps
If you are just getting started with white noise and not ready to buy a white noise machine, you may want to try a white noise app. White noise apps are available for smartphones and come in a wide range of price-points. When choosing between apps, it may be helpful to consider whether the app is easy to use, includes a sleep timer, and offers the features and sounds that help you fall asleep.
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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!