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White Noise & Background Noise: How Sounds Affect Sleep | Sleep Reset

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December 6, 2022

Does White Noise for Sleep Help or Hurt?

Medically reviewed by: 

Too much noise can wreck your chances of getting a good night's sleep, be it a jackhammer early in the morning, a stereo-loving neighbor, or a broken smoke alarm. However, common problems like rumbling traffic and snoring partners can make it difficult to avoid noise entirely. Background noise can help by masking disruptive sounds and creating a more calming environment for sleep.

A 2012 poll by the Sleep Foundation found that 5% of Americans deliberately sleep with noise, using devices like fans and air conditioners.

Why People Sleep With Noise

Background noise helps people fall asleep because many find it soothing. The soft, predictable sounds can provide a sense of security, making it easier to relax and drift off to sleep. This phenomenon is especially true if you're trying to fall asleep in a loud environment or experiencing sleep anxiety. 

In 2016, sleep researchers studying hospital patients demonstrated that white noise could help patients sleep better. Their results were replicated in 2021 by a similar study where the authors concluded "there was a significant difference in the [patients'] sleep quality after the application of the white noise app..."

White noise

White noise refers to noise that contains all frequencies humans can hear in equal measure. It's often compared to the sound of static on the TV. White noise for sleep helps by muffling jarring sounds that might startle you awake, like sirens and thunder. If you’re looking for white noise, there are a number of machines and apps designed for sleeping.

Sleep sounds

Sleep sounds, or pink noise, also contain all of the frequencies humans can hear. However, unlike white noise, sleep sounds are not perfectly balanced. The lower frequencies are more prominent, which creates a flatter, lower-pitched sound.

Pink noise is found in nature, like rain falling or waves crashing on the beach, which is why sound machines may mimic those nature noises.

Research is still unfolding, but early studies suggest that sleep sounds may help you achieve deep and restful sleep.

Sleeping with the TV on

Is it bad to sleep with the tv playing? By some estimates, nearly two-thirds of Americans fall asleep with the TV on occasionally. While television can be a helpful sleep aid, there are some drawbacks to consider.

For instance, research has shown that blue light from screens suppresses the release of melatonin more than any other color of light. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate your natural sleep-wake cycle.

Additionally, when trying to fall asleep with the TV on, you may find it impossible to resist flipping through channels.

If you choose to sleep with the TV on, be aware that the type of programming you're watching can affect your sleep quality. Scientists have found that people who watched violent TV shows before bed took longer to fall asleep and had more nightmares than those who didn't watch television.

Other sleep sounds

The sound of gurgling streams isn’t relaxing for everyone. If you don't like white noise or sleep sounds, try another type of calming background noise.

Some people find that lullabies or other gentle music can help them drift off to sleep. Look for music specifically designed to promote rest.

There are also many sleep podcasts and sleep stories you can download. You might go to sleep to the sound of an English professor quietly describing the life of a past king.

Or, if a related story would be too distracting, you can try listening to a meditation. Many apps offer free, guided sleep meditations.

Tips For Sound Sleep

Here are a few tips that may help if you decide to include sleep sounds in your nightly routine.

  1. Use a timer: Using a sleep timer will ensure that the noise doesn't play all night and disturb your sleep.
  1. Start with a low volume: For white noise or sleep sounds to be helpful, they can’t be too loud. Find a volume that's comfortable and relaxing.
  1. Try different types of noise: You may need to find out what type of noise will help you sleep, so try a few different options. There are many white noise and sleep sound machines that offer variety.
  1. Consider your environment: Some people find that white noise or sleep sounds can help them sleep even in a noisy environment. But if you live in a quiet place, you might not need any additional noise to fall asleep.

Find Better Ways to Fall Asleep

White noise and sleep sounds can help you through tough nights. However, other factors may be at play if you're still struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Sleep Reset is here to help. We help you fight sleep anxiety with cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), so you don't have to rely on any external sleep aid, including sleep sounds.

Take the Sleep Quiz to get personalized recommendations to help you sleep better.