Think about all the different tones the human ear can hear – from high-pitched soprano to deep reverberating bass and everything in between. Imagine if all these sounds were combined and you heard them simultaneously. What would that sound like?
That’s what white noise is – a combination of every possible sound frequency. More people are turning to white noise to help catch those all-elusive ZZZs.
The question is: Does white noise help you sleep? How does it work? This guide explores everything you need to know.
White Noise, Pink Noise, Brown Noise – What’s the Difference
As mentioned, white noise contains all the possible audible sound frequencies across the spectrum. If you were alive in the era of analog TVs and radios, white noise could be likened to the static that comes from these untuned electronics.
For decades, researchers have been studying the effect that white noise has on humans. So far, they have established that it can help minimize the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), improve work-related productivity, and soothe infants to stop them from crying. Several studies have also been done to assess the impact of white noise on human sleep.
Keep in mind that while white noise might be similar to pink and brown noise, they’re not the same.
Like white noise, pink noise is also a combination of audible sounds across the frequency spectrum. The difference is that in the latter, the frequency power gradually decreases as the octaves increase. For this reason, pink noise sounds lower-pitched compared to white noise. It almost sounds like the noise generated by waterfalls.
On the other hand, brown noise, sometimes referred to as red noise, is similar to white and pink noise. It is a combination of all the sounds in each octave of the spectrum, and, like pink noise, there’s a gradual decrease in frequency power as the octaves increase.
The only difference is that the decrease is twice as much as what you find with pink noise. Most people liken the sound of brown noise to the noise generated by a shower or rainfall.
How White Noise for Sleep Works
Suppose you live in an apartment complex, and your next-door neighbors have an animated conversation. Even if they’re talking simultaneously, your brain could “pick out” one of those voices, allowing you to listen to it, and understand what they’re communicating.
Let’s say you wanted to hear what the other person was saying. Like a light switch, your brain could pick out the other voice, listen, and understand what they were saying. If there were three people in that conversation, your brain could still pick out each voice.
Using the same scenario, let’s say you were at an event with 10,000 other people, and everyone was talking simultaneously. It would be impossible for your brain to single out one voice and focus on what they were saying.
That is essentially how white noise works. When you turn on a fan or white noise machine to drown out your neighbor’s animated conversation or the sound of the busy street outside, you’re creating a source of 10,000 “voices” (so to speak). In other words, you’ve created white noise.
How Does White Noise Help You Sleep?
So far, we’ve looked at what white noise is and how it works. The next logical question would be: Why does white noise help you sleep?
The answer to this is simple. You sleep because it blocks out or masks unwanted external or disruptive sounds. Studies show that sleep disruptions resulting from noise pollution have far-reaching effects on human biological systems. External noises can affect the quantity and quality of sleep we get.
White noise creates a filter between your eardrums and external noise, allowing you to sleep soundly despite everything going on around you. A major part of good sleep hygiene involves developing a proper bedtime routine. This could involve sipping calming sleepy tea, listening to soft relaxing sleeping music, limiting screen time by reading a book or switching on a white noise machine.
These rituals are all designed to signal your body and brain that it is time to sleep. Once you do, white noise will help you stay asleep by creating a buffer that blocks out any loud, disruptive sounds that may wake you prematurely.
Is White Noise Good for Sleep?
White noise is especially beneficial for light sleepers and individuals who live in the city. The sound of planes flying overhead, trains passing, traffic on major roadways and neighborhood activity can interrupt your sleep. This noise can prevent you from getting deep, restorative sleep.
White noise is also great for shift workers who work at night and, therefore, have to sleep during the daytime or people with housemates who operate on a different sleeping schedule.
According to a recent study, white noise has proven beneficial for people who have difficulty due to the high level of environmental noise in the area they reside. If you live in a busy metropolitan area, listening to white noise can help improve the quality of your sleep, allowing you to stay asleep despite the activity going on outside your bedroom window.
How to Incorporate White Noise Into Your Nightly Routine
While a white noise machine is a great tool to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep, it is not the be-all and end-all of good quality sleep. It constitutes only one part of good sleep hygiene. What you want to do is form a healthy bedtime routine to reap the full benefits of white noise.
For starters, you need to get ready for bed at the same time every night. This also applies to weekends, so pick a time that allows you to get the recommended number of hours of shut-eye every night. If you’re an early riser, try adjusting your evening routine to allow you to go to bed earlier.
Next, create a nighttime ritual to trigger a Pavlovian response. The idea is to signal your brain to start winding down for the evening by linking certain activities to sleep. A healthy routine can include taking a warm bath, doing an evening skincare routine, brushing your teeth, flossing, or changing into your favorite pajamas.
Once you’re through with the hygiene aspect of your nightly ritual, you can drink a cup of sleepy tea, fluff up your pillows, dim the lights, turn on your white noise machine with relaxing sounds, and get into bed. You can also set a no-screen-time-in-bed rule for yourself and read a book instead with your background noise. This conditions your brain to associate your bed with restful sleep and nothing else.
It is worth noting that smartphone screens emit blue light, which blocks melatonin production, making it harder to fall asleep.
How to Choose the Best White Noise Machine
There are several things you must keep in mind when choosing a white noise machine for sleep sounds:
White Noise App vs. White Noise Machine
Once you’ve decided to incorporate white noise into your bedtime, one of the first things you need to figure out is – whether to use a white noise app or a white noise machine. If affordability and convenience are your top priority, the app might be a better option. However, the sound quality is better on a white noise machine.
If you’re on a tight budget, white noise apps come in free, low-cost versions. The prices of white noise machines vary widely and can set you anywhere from $20 to $100+. A white noise machine is a once-in-a-lifetime investment. We recommend saving up and buying a higher-quality device to get the best sleep results.
Before settling on an app or machine, make sure to read what other users say about it, particularly regarding sound quality. White noise machines can either mechanically generate white noise or play a digital white noise recording.
The choice of one over the other comes down to personal preference. If you go the recording route, check whether the product says anything about a clean loop.
Ensure that the device’s specifications for the lowest and highest volume levels meet your needs. You don’t want it to be so low you can barely hear it over the noise around you. You also don’t want it to be so loud that it distracts you.
We recommend getting a white noise machine or app that integrates a sleep timer into its basic functionality. Some products have pre-set time blocks users can choose from, while others allow you to customize when it comes on and turns off.
Consider investing in a white noise app or machine featuring other sounds designed to improve sleep. A device that also has pink noise, brown noise, and soothing nature sounds would be a great option to consider.
If you have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, white background noise on a sound machine might just be what the doctor ordered for deep sleep. It has been scientifically proven to improve sleep quality among individuals living in noisy and busy metropolitan areas and shift workers living with people with conflicting schedules and outside noise.
White noise isn’t just great for helping you sleep; the sleep sound creates a Pavlovian response that conditions the brain to know when it’s time to catch some ZZZs. It’s a win-win any way you look at it.
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