Noise and sleep—help!
A friend recently asked me about white noise machines, and if I knew whether they helped with sleep or not.
I’ve never used one, and honestly didn’t know anything about them.
In theory, white noise masks more irritating noises, such as traffic, airplanes, barking dogs, talking, television and random household sounds.
For sensitive individuals, or shift workers or partners of snorers, noise can be a major sleep destroyer, and a good night’s sleep is so important to good health.
My sleep quality is poor due to Restless Legs Syndrome rather than noise, but I was still interested in doing a little research on white noise and the white noise machines on the market.
“Little research” about sums it up; there are very few studies about the science behind white noise. I found enough information, however, to make me more curious about trying it myself.
I learned it’s not so much constant background noise that keeps us awake or wakes us up, but sudden sound changes—the honking horn, the slammed door, the neighbor’s car alarm, the on-and-off of a furnace, the snoring, etc.
White noise is sound that is consistent across all audible frequencies. White noise machines set a baseline noise level, so random and sudden changes aren’t as jarring.
Several small studies show a positive correlation between white noise and sleep quality.
Most studies looked at newborns. Babies who have white noise machines get to sleep more quickly and stay asleep longer than babies without.
That explains why so many new parents are told to put their fussy baby in a car seat on top of or near the dryer and turn it on. Or why babies fall asleep while riding in a car (mine always did).
Hospitals are notorious for making sleep impossible because of all the beeping machines and other alarms. Two small studies showed sleep improvement in adults in coronary care units (CCUs) and intensive care units (ICUs).
Environmental factors like noise is a common cause of sleep disorders. Based on the findings of this study, the use of white noise is recommended as a method for masking environmental noises, sleep induction, improving sleep, and maintaining sleep…
White noise vs ambient sound
I found another study that looked at using the sound of ocean waves to improve sleep. These patients were also in the hospital, recovering from open-heart surgery. Results were similar to the other white noise studies.
The use of ocean sounds is a viable intervention to foster optimal sleep patterns…
Ocean waves aren’t necessarily the same as white noise. I think of white noise as a fan or old-fashioned television static.
Many sleep machines have options for other background sounds that may be “natural and soothing,” such as ocean waves, rain, thunder, babbling brook, heartbeat (for infants), campfire or bird song.
Whether these ambient sounds mask noise as well as white noise, or just help us relax and fall asleep, is unknown. I couldn’t find any studies looking at the relationship between “sounds of nature” and sleep, other than the one using ocean waves.
Pink noise and brown noise
Doing my research I also learned about pink noise and brown noise.
Pink noise is white noise minus the upper frequencies. Because it is slightly lower pitched, it is supposed to be more soothing.
Brown noise is an even lower frequency.
In theory, both pink noise and brown noise will provide the sound needed to mask abrupt noises, but they may also play a role in calming an overactive mind.
How to choose a white noise machine
There are so many white noise machines on the market! I haven’t bought one (yet), but spent a few hours looking at the options and reading reviews.
Here are some questions I’ve asked myself while I’m browsing the different machines:
- What types of sounds are provided? I’m more interested in white noise (or pink or brown) than nature sounds.
- Is it looping or non-looping? Non-looping sound may be less startling to the sleeping brain.
- Is there an easy-to-read, lighted display?
- How is it powered? I’d prefer an energy-efficient machine that runs on battery with an USB cable and AC adapter.
- Can I use earphones? My spouse might not want to participate in my white noise experiment!
- Is it portable, with a case? Traveling, especially overseas, wrecks my sleep. I’d like the option to bring a white noise machine with me when I travel.
- How much does it cost? Machines run between $20 and $150. I’m not sure I want to invest over $100 on a gadget that might not help me…
I’m typically not into gadgets, but sleep is such an important part of our lives, and too many of us suffer from disrupted and insufficient sleep.
A white noise machine may be a simple, affordable and risk-free alternative to sleeping pills or other medications, and that’s not a bad thing.
What are you looking for? A machine to mask noises, provide soothing sounds, or both? Is it for yourself, an infant, or travel?
Think about what you need, and then find the machine that will work best for you.
Here are the machines I’m considering. If I get one and use it, I’ll write another post to let you know how it works.