How to Use White Noise for Sounder Sleep

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If you’re the kind of person who needs complete silence in order to get a good night’s sleep, close this tab. There's no need to read further. However, if you find that even the slightest noise — a garbage truck outside, a dog barking, a snoring spouse — is a call to attention, then you might want to look into the benefits of white noise.

Benefits of a Great Night of Sleep

There's nothing better than waking up after a great night of sleep, feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day. There are so many benefits of a good night's sleep in addition to feeling rejuvenated the next morning: it can keep your heart healthy, help reduce stress and ward off depression.

You may have noticed that getting a good night's sleep is becoming tougher to achieve as you grow older. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, older adults who don’t sleep well at night are more likely to have problems with memory and attention and are at a greater risk of nighttime falls.

Sleep duration, how much you sleep each night, has also been linked to longevity. The most beneficial night’s sleep is probably 7 to 8 hours in length. In large epidemiological studies, those get significantly fewer hours of sleep (fewer than 6) or substantially more (over 9 hours) have been shown to be at a greater risk of dying during the study period.

Why You Need a White Noise Machine

If you have trouble falling asleep or are easily awakened during the night, many sleep specialists recommend trying a sound conditioner or white noise machine. In the book "Say Good Night to Insomnia," insomnia researcher Gregg Jacobs says these devices work in two ways: by blocking distracting noises and by producing soothing sounds that are relaxing and help to induce sleep.

"I am a true believer [of white noise]," says psychiatrist David Neubauer, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Sleep Disorders Center. "I sleep with white noise myself. While most of the evidence showing that these machines help people sleep is anecdotal, we know they provide a kind of ‘sound cocoon,’ which is very soothing. When it’s completely quiet, people with insomnia or other sleep difficulties focus more closely on small noises, which can interfere with their getting to sleep."

In a 2008 Consumers Reports survey of 2,021 problem sleepers, sound machines were found to work almost as well as medication in getting participants to sleep.

Find the Right Noise Machine

Noise machines are widely available and are relatively inexpensive, but before you head to the nearest big-box store, find out which kind of noise machine is best for you.

White Noise Machines: White noise is when sound waves of a broad spectrum of frequencies are combined, forming a sound similar to the constant hum a fan creates when it’s blowing air. White noise machines may generate their own white noise or play it back in a loop, which is an endless, repeating sound recording.

Research has shown that white noise can help patients sleep through the type of sounds that occur in a hospital Intensive Care Unit setting by helping to block out ambient noise. Sleep loss in the ICU has been the focus of some research because a patient’s recovery can be negatively impacted by a lack of sleep. In one sleep lab study, recorded ICU noise was played over a sound system while subjects tried to sleep. The number of awakenings was significantly reduced when white noise was added.​

White noise is also recommended to help people with tinnitus, or ringing or buzzing in the ear, a condition that often affects older people. Tinnitus is often more noticeable at night because there are fewer competing sounds to distract the person from it. White noise can help mask the ringing.

Nature Sound Machines: Many people find nature sounds like rainfall and ocean waves more relaxing than white noise. The repetitive, consistent sound is easy for the brain to ignore. This may not be true for machines that feature ocean sounds with intermittent bird calls or foghorns, for example.

Turn Off the TV

Some people prefer to fall asleep with the TV or radio playing in the background, but it's better to turn them off. Although you might be accustomed to falling asleep with the TV or music playing in the background, a part of your brain is still paying attention, which can interfere with sleep.

Additionally, the blue light emitted from the TV and other electronics suppresses melatonin levels, which is the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Avoid watching TV and looking at bright screens 2 to 3 hours before bed.

When to Seek Outside Help

Neubauer says there is no evidence of dependency or withdrawal when the noise machines are absent. He compares using them to making any other change in your sleeping environment, like getting a better mattress, lowering the room temperature or turning off the lights.

While it’s true that quality of sleep tends to worsen with age, sleep disturbances in older people are often due to other health problems, like cardiac or pulmonary diseases, chronic pain or psychiatric issues like depression. Age-related changes in circadian rhythm, the body’s daily biological cycle, may also be to blame.

If you have tried to build good sleeping habits by cutting back on caffeine and having a regular bedtime routine and it’s not enough, talk to your health-care provider. They’ll want to rule out sleep apnea, which can have the same symptoms of fractured sleep, or difficulty falling asleep, as with insomnia.

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Article Sources

  • "Blue Light Has a Dark Side." Harvard Health Letter.

  • Tinnitus. Medline Plus Public Information Sheet.

  • Hublin C, Partinen M, Koskenvuo M, Kaprio J. “Heritability and mortality risk of insomnia-related symptoms: a genetic epidemiologic study in a population-based twin cohort.” Sleep. 2011 Jul 1;34(7):957-64.
  • Stanchina ML, Abu-Hijleh M, Chaudhry BK, Carlisle CC, Millman RP “The influence of white noise on sleep in subjects exposed to ICU noise.” Sleep Med. 2005 Sep;6(5):423-8.