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How Does White Noise Work for Sleep?

Almost half of all adults in the UK claim not to get enough sleep. More than two thirds report regularly disturbed sleep, with almost a quarter of everyone registering less than five hours’ worth of sleep per night.1

With these kinds of statistics and nighttime rest being so important to our minds and bodies, it’s little wonder so many people turn to external solutions to help.

One of the more unusual answers to the age-old question of ‘how can I improve my sleep?’ may surprise anyone yet to hear about it… noise. Specifically, white noise.

Let’s have a look at just what white noise is and how it may be able to help us sleep better, shall we?

What exactly is white noise?

A discordant sound that can be quite jarring the first time you hear it, white noise is a sound which technically contains every possible hearable frequency. All noises across all frequencies that are consistent and, together, produce a quite unique sound2.

Modern televisions and digital radios don’t really produce it, but decades ago those devices produced white noise when left untuned. This is most people’s reference point for the sound, at least. Think of the spooky untuned TV flickering in a dark room in a horror film. That’s the noise.

Sounds like it could be annoying to hear, right? Well, perhaps at first. Oddly enough, however, researchers have long studied white noise for sleep and other applications and, so far, proven it to help concentration, create a more productive working environment, help sufferers of ADHD, ease crying in babies and assist problem sleepers3.

How white noise can help you sleep

It all sounds rather counterintuitive, doesn’t it? If you’re struggling with sleep, surely you’d benefit from a silent environment? Not one of noise. Bear with us, though.

For those light sleepers who are disturbed by nocturnal noises, it’s not the volume or even noise itself that often wakes them. It’s the disturbance or change in the sound environment in which the person is in4. Absolute silence is great if it’s consistent, but it sets a low bar for other noises to become disturbing.

A constant noise helps mask other potentially disruptive sounds. Imagine loud road noise. It’s inconsistent and at different levels of volume. Switch on, say, a fan and it may cover up the car noise with a reassuringly harmonious and predictably continuous noise. It works like a blanket, almost.

One way of looking at white noise as a sleep aid is to see it like a buffer. It sits in between the slumbering person and any disturbing external noises.

The research into white noise and sleeping

A 2005 study5 – albeit a modest one – published in the journal Sleep Medicine – reported positive things about white noise as a sleeping aid. A small group were kept in a hospital environment, with all the noises you’d expect. All reported disturbed sleep.

The group was then split into two: those who slept with white noise were barely disturbed by the sounds of the hospital, while waking up continued to be an issue amongst those in the trial who slept without white noise.

Another experiment6 conducted with people who suffered from insomnia produced equally encouraging results. Subjects exposed to white noise when sleeping experienced a 38% reduction in what’s called sleep latency (that annoying time spent tossing and turning before falling asleep).

The subjects also reported that when they did actually fall asleep, they showed ‘subjective and objective improvements in sleep quality’.

The downsides of using white noise to help with sleep

As we’ve seen, there are some small studies that seem to indicate that white noise can be a useful tool for problem sleepers. The research isn’t unanimous, though.

The studies which point to the success of white noise as a tool to combat poor sleep are all small in size. This may be significant. True ‘proof’ would need more studies and all of a greater depth.

Some sleep researchers believe that the very idea of a constant auditory stimulus may even be damaging to a person’s sleep cycle. It may actually just disturb certain people. Although they do see the benefits of white noise for shift workers who may need to sleep in noisy environments7.

One other potential disadvantage of using white noise for sleep is that it engages the auditory system constantly. It works even when we’re asleep and so continuous noise means constant hearing. No noise means that, while – effectively – ‘switched on’, your hearing can still rest and recuperate somewhat8.

What to do if you decide to try white noise as an aid to sleep

If you’re interested in trying out white noise as a tool to help improve the quality of your sleep, you have plenty of options.

There are lots of different white noise sleeping machines on the market. Look online and you’ll find a range of manufacturers and models, at varying price points.

They range from the very basic to the quite advanced. Some come with headphone jacks, different sounds, the ability to control the tones and volume, all sorts.

If you’re unsure about whether or not a white noise machine is for you or not, perhaps try using a white noise phone app first. There should be plenty in your phone’s app store which are free to download and use. Then, if you find it useful, you can investigate purchasing a machine at a price and spec that suits you.

Of course, white noise for sleeping only really has a chance of improving your sleep quality if it’s audible disturbances that are the root cause of your insomnia or difficulty falling – or remaining asleep.

If the issue lies elsewhere, white noise may not be able to help you a great deal. So before you invest in a white noise sleeping machine, it may be a good idea to try other avenues first. We have lots of useful hints and tips here on our blog explaining how small lifestyle changes can improve your sleep quality.