For folks wary of taking sleep meds to help them snooze, white noise can be a welcome alternative. Projected by machines, apps, and online videos, this type of noise has been shown to be effective at both relaxing sleepers and creating stable sound environments.
But how exactly does it work? Well, that’s what we’ll be exploring here! Below, I’m going to walk you through what white noise is, why it’s a great tool for sleep, how best to use it, whether or not it’s safe for kids, and much, much more.
So, without further ado, let’s get into my full white noise for sleep guide!
What is White Noise?
First things first: What in the world is white noise? Well, according to Merriam-Webster, it is defined as a heterogeneous mixture of sound waves extending over a wide frequency range.
Um… what? Yeah, it’s a little confusing, but what it means is that white noise is a type of noise that’s produced when many different sounds of many different frequencies play together at the same time. Basically, if you were to combine every sound a human could possibly hear (from the low lows to the high highs), you’d get white noise. In fact, white noise gets its name from “white light,” which is light that contains every color in the rainbow.
And though not all white noise sounds the same, it does have a fairly similar quality to it. Think static or the snowy screen of an old-school TV that’s lost its signal.
What I find especially interesting about white noise is that while it may seem like a block of indiscernible tones, if you were to dissect them out sound by sound, you’d actually be able to hear each and every one of them. It’s kind of like when you’re at a crowded party and everyone’s talking, but you can’t pinpoint a single voice unless you focus on it really hard. For that reason, it’s probably easiest to think of white noise as a background hum that’s consistent in terms of tone, frequency, and volume.
How Does White Noise Help You Sleep?
And this consistency is actually what makes white noise such a fantastic tool for sleep! Essentially, it creates a “sound-masking effect” that’s able to cover up sharp noises that might otherwise disturb you in the night. These noises could include car horns, dog barks, slammed doors, basically anything unpleasant and abrupt.
In this way, white noise is like an aural shield between slumbering you and the outside world. But don’t take my word for it! There’s been a ton of research done into the topic, with several recent studies finding white noise to be effective at inducing sound sleep.
A study from 2017, for example, found that white noise reduced subjects’ sleep onset latency (that is, the time it took them to fall asleep) by upwards of 40%. (1) Another, from 2016, discovered that white noise was able to help patients in the noisy coronary care unit of a hospital get better sleep than they normally would. (2) There’s also some evidence to suggest that white noise could help with learning, concentration, and memory retention.
Another great thing about white noise is that it’s highly accessible. You can listen to it via a white noise machine, an app, or even by streaming a video on YouTube. Most experts suggest hitting play right as you’re getting into bed and letting it go all night long.
To learn more, I spoke with Occupational Therapist, Sleep Consultant, and Sleepopolis Expert Annie Schlecht about why she tells her patients to use white noise for sleep:
Just think about all the technology we have going on in our homes: the AC kicking on, the furnace kicking on,” she explained. “Our brains are wired to pick up patterns to keep us safe and alert us to what’s going on. So, the whole idea of white noise would be that it could block out some of those sounds so you could keep consistently sleeping and transitioning through your sleep cycle without those disruptions.
White Noise Concerns & White Noise for Babies
Though many experts find nighttime white noise to be a safe and effective treatment for restlessness, some studies have suggested that repeated use of white noise could be harmful to the body, especially for those who suffer from tinnitus, or ringing in the ears.
However, the research into whether or not this is true is limited, and most claims have been debunked by medical professionals. That being said, if you know you’re sensitive to sounds or noise, I’d recommend playing white noise at a low volume and keeping the device at least six feet away from your bed. And, of course, you should always consult with a doctor before making any major changes to your sleep regime.
In regards to whether or not white noise is safe for kids, all signs point to yes. In fact, Annie Schlecht specifically recommends that parents use white noise when sleep training their children:
The sounds that they’re exposed to in the womb are pretty similar to the ones we’re trying to expose them to with the white noise machines,” she remarked. “Again, I don’t want it too over-stimulating or over-powering, so I’m always recommending to keep it further away from the head of the crib.
Other Colors of Noise
So, we’ve got a pretty good handle on what white noise is, but did you know that it’s just one of many different colors of noise? In fact, there are several sonorous shades one can use to fall asleep. Below, I’ll introduce you to four of the most popular ones!
And a small note before we dive in — when we refer to the “color” of a sound, we’re talking about the power spectrum of its noise signal.
- White Noise has equal power across frequencies, so the low sounds are just as strong as the high ones. Examples of white noise include fans, air conditioner units, and indiscernible chatter.
- Grey Noise is similar to white noise, but has more of a “flat” sound. A less common shade of noise, it’s soft and quiet like steady rain.
- Pink noise is deeper than white noise, so its low frequencies are more powerful than its high ones. It’s a subtle option for folks who want something a little calmer than white noise. An example of pink noise would be rustling leaves.
- Brown Noise is the deepest noise with higher energy at low frequencies. Imagine the low roar of a powerful waterfall.
Well folks, that does it for this guide! For more sleep-related content and resources, make sure to subscribe to the Sleepopolis YouTube channel and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
- Messineo, et al. “0394 EFFECT OF BACKGROUND NOISE ON SLEEP QUALITY.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 28 Apr. 2017.
- Farokhnezhad Afshar, Pouya, et al. “Effect of White Noise on Sleep in Patients Admitted to a Coronary Care.” Journal of Caring Sciences, Tabriz University of Medical Sciences, 1 June 2016.