White Noise: Does It Help You Sleep?

One-third or more of adults1 and children2 in the United States regularly fall short of sleep. Sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, obesity, and depression, among other chronic conditions.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to see folks in need of sleep aids like white noise machines. Here, we define white noise, discuss its effects on sleep, and offer suggestions for incorporating it into your bedtime routine.

What Is White Noise?

The term “white noise” is used to describe a type of noise that has an equal amount of every frequency3 in the audible sound range. Broadband4 noise is another name for white noise due to the fact that it encompasses several different frequency ranges.

Anecdotally, white noise is sometimes compared to the static that can be heard on a radio or TV that has not been properly tuned. Scientists have spent years studying white noise’s effects on humans, and they’ve found that it can help with everything from calming fussy babies to boosting productivity at work to mitigating the symptoms of ADHD5.

The potential effects of white noise on human sleep have been the subject of numerous investigations.

White Noise

Does White Noise Help You Sleep?

A recent meta-analysis of sleep-related studies involving white noise found conflicting findings. The authors dispute the reliability of the available information and say that more study is needed before white noise can be broadly recommended as a sleep aid. They also mention that white noise may have adverse effects on one’s sleep and hearing.

Sleep-inducing machines based on the principle of white noise date back to the 17th century10. Researchers in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s studied the effects of white noise on sleep, discovering that it aided newborn babies in falling asleep faster11 and altered the duration of adults’ various sleep stages12 when played continuously.

White noise helped adults in a recent research sleep 38% faster13. In addition to the previous studies, newer ones have also confirmed that white noise has a restful effect on sleep. People in New York City’s high-noise neighborhoods, for instance, slept more and deeper when white noise was playing in the background14.

Critically sick patients in an extremely noisy Indian hospital unit slept better after listening to white noise using headphones, according to another study15. More study is needed to determine if the white noise itself enhances sleep (perhaps by synchronizing brain waves) or whether the sound is most helpful because it masks other, distracting sounds.

Heart rate changes16 caused by noise disturbances during sleep are indicative of fragmented awakenings. Sixty-four percent of 17 people surveyed in New York City reported that noise kept them awake at least once a week.

Insomnia is a worldwide problem, and it’s thought that noise from mobility modes like vehicles and planes18 might have serious health consequences. Scientists are hopeful that white noise will help people sleep better by masking more erratic sounds in the environment.

White Noise vs. Pink Noise

Pink noise, like white noise, is a broad-band tone that includes frequencies from across the audible range. Each octave of pink noise contains noises, however, the higher the octave, the less powerful the frequencies become.

Therefore, pink noise has a lower frequency range than white noise. Pink noise has been compared to the roar of a waterfall6 by those in the know. Pink noise has been demonstrated to boost memory and attention in older persons and increase the quality of their deep sleep.

White Noise vs. Brown Noise

Like white and pink noise, brown noise, sometimes known as red noise7, is a type of wideband sound. Brown noise, like pink noise, spans the whole audible spectrum, but unlike pink noise, the intensity of the lower-frequency sounds gradually diminishes when higher-frequency ones are added.

Because this reduction is twice as large as in pink noise, the resulting sound is perceived as being significantly lower in pitch than either white or pink noise. Participants in experiments have compared brown noise to the sound of rain or a shower8.

While there has been some research into the effects of brown noise on sleep, it has been proven to be helpful in alleviating tinnitus symptoms and boosting brainpower.

How To Choose a White Noise Machine?

When deciding on a white noise machine, there are numerous variables to think about:

  • One of the first things to decide when looking for white noise is whether you want a physical machine or a mobile app. Machines are typically more cumbersome and costly, but they may offer superior audio quality. If you want to get some shut-eye without being too close to your phone, a machine is your best bet. Traveling with an app could be more convenient because you wouldn’t have to bring any extra equipment.
  • Think about the finances. There are white noise apps that are either completely free or cost very little money. Price points for white noise machines range widely, from under $20 for a basic model to well over $100 for more advanced and feature-rich models.
  • Check out what other buyers had to say about the sound quality of the white noise gadgets you’re thinking of purchasing. Digital white noise recordings or physically generated white noise are both options for white noise devices. Certain listeners have strong preferences for particular tones. If you decide on a digital recording, verify that the maker claims it has a clean loop, so that you can play it without hearing a break in the middle.
  • Modulating the volume of your white noise machine is a must. If you want to be sure the white noise machine’s volume range is adequate for your needs, you can check the manufacturer’s specs.
  • Most white noise machines include a sleep timer, though its specific features may vary depending on the model. Learn the specifics of the machines you’re considering and how you can adjust the timeframe. Some have no time limits on how long a user can schedule an activity for, while others limit you to specific time intervals.
  • If you’ve never tried falling asleep to white noise before, you might want to get a machine or app that offers a variety of other sounds in case you don’t like falling asleep to white noise. White noise machines and apps typically have a variety of broadband noises, including pink and brown noise in addition to a tranquil nature ambiance.

Setting Your White Noise Machine Volume

Long-term exposure to noise at or over 85 dB(A)20, as recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, can be harmful. Exposure to loud sounds can cause tinnitus and permanent hearing loss21.

When people slept very close to their white noise machine or app, a study found that the volume was often higher than suggested. The NIOSH Sound Level Meter (SLM) App23 can help you find the ideal white noise machine volume setting.

The decibel level of any sound can be determined with the help of this handy app. You’ll need another phone or digital device to check the volume level of the white noise being played through an app on your first device.

The optimal setting for a white noise machine to aid sleep has not been formally established. Researchers found that participants who utilized a white noise machine at 46 dB while sleeping reported improved sleep quality. If 46 decibels is too low for you, turn up the volume gradually while keeping it below 85 decibels.

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Tips for Incorporating White Noise Into Your Bedtime Routine

To maximize the effectiveness of a white noise machine in helping you get to sleep, use it as part of a well-rounded strategy for doing so. Consistency is the key to success, and establishing a healthy routine—including a ritual before bedtime24—may have favorable consequences on your health.

Maintain a regular bedtime25 even on the weekends by starting to get ready for bed at the same time each night. Some people take a warm bath before bed, while others like to brush their teeth and floss before turning in.

After you’ve settled down for the night, put on your white noise machine and set your alarm clock if you need to. Think about whether you want the white noise to last all night or just until you nod off, then adjust the timer accordingly. Put away electronic devices and save your bed for sleep and s*xual activity only.

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