Foam earplugs are very effective at reducing noise across the whole frequency range.
Unfortunately, not everyone can tolerate foreign objects in their ear canal.
Other people like me, sometimes need or want to give their ears a break from earplugs without completely giving up on noise reduction when going to bed.
Others yet may be faced with noise that overpowers even the best earplugs.
There good news: There are some good alternatives to earplugs for blocking out noise so that you can sleep.
Some of these options work for side and back sleepers and some are only practical for back sleepers.
So let’s get right into it.
White Noise Machines
In several hospital studies, white noise machines have been shown to significantly improve sleep. They are amongst my all-time favorites for fending off nighttime noise.
They produce a waterfall-like sound that masks disturbing environmental noise, so that you don’t hear it anymore, or, at the very least, so that your mind can ignore it.
Arousals, fragmented sleep, and awakenings are often caused by sudden, startling noises.
This is where white noise machines come in: They are so effective because they reduce the difference between background noise and suddenly occurring noises.
Noise masking works for a large variety of noises, including barking dogs, chatter and TV noise coming through the walls from neighboring rooms, traffic noise, and so on.
White noise machines are also among the most effective tools to get rid of repeatedly occurring, annoying sounds.
I have such a machine (the Lectrofan Classic) on my night table.
When shopping for a white noise machine, get one that allows you to adjust the pitch of the white noise to match your room and the types of noise you want mask. One white-noise setting is likely not going to be enough!
I want emphasize this point: If you want to mask a barking Rottweiler, a high-pitched sound or the crackling of a campfire isn’t going to do it. To match that kind of dog, your white noise needs enough substance in the bass frequencies.
You also want to be able to adjust the volume finely from very quiet to really loud. The Lectrofan allows you do to do this.
Alternatively, if you want the sound of a real fan, the Marpac Dohm Classic is a good choice for stationary use. Again, you can adjust the pitch of the fan with this machine.
Last, but not least, you can use white noise machines to improve the effectiveness of almost all noise reducing devices, including earmuffs and earplugs. So if you have tried foam or wax earplugs but find them not effective enough, add a white noise machine.
Moldable wax or silicone putty earplugs
If you can’t tolerate foam or triple flange earplugs in your ear canal, moldable earplugs are a good alternative for sleeping.
Unlike foam earplugs, which have to be inserted quite deep into the ear canal, these earplugs only seal the ear canal entrance. They are simply rolled into a ball, pressed against the ear and flattened.
So while you may feel them a tiny bit at first, you won’t experience any pressure in your ear.
What’s more, while not as effective as foam for low-frequency noise, moldable wax and silicone earplugs are very respectable noise blockers.
You can considerably improve their ability to shield you from annoying constant noises and sudden, startling noise events by combining them with a white noise machine (see above) on your night stand.
Active Noise Cancelling Headphones
If you are a back sleeper, the best over-the-ear noise cancelling headphones such as the Bose QC35 ANC headphones are a great alternative to earplugs for reducing night-time noise.
They are comfortable and very effective for low-frequency noise, including airplane and traffic noise, generators, humming machines, and your neighbor’s bass-heavy music.
Depending on the building structure, they may even be able to get rid of most of the footfalls from upstairs neighbors.
I have also tested the QC35 with snoring noise. They can be made into one of the best snoring noise blockers I know of. Note that depending on the snorer, snoring noise may have several peaks in the low-frequency noise range up to 1000 Hz.
In addition, the passive noise isolation of the QC35 is very respectable—effectively muffling even quite loud snoring and most higher-pitched environmental noise. Playing white noise at a moderate volume eliminates the remainder of the snores.
Over-the-headphones aren’t generally designed for side sleepers. I wouldn’t dare using the QC35 with a normal pillow.
But there is a solution: with my favorite u-shaped memory foam travel pillow, I can comfortably lie on the side with them.
I position the pillow so that the opening is at the top of my head. That way, both the headband and the cups don’t get pushed against my head and my chin and cheeks rest on the pillow.
This works surprisingly well with a dense memory foam travel pillow.
The risk is that if I move around a lot, I might wear the headphones out over time or break them. But if I needed to do this to get my night time sleep, I would do it without blinking an eye.
Bose also has noise-cancelling earbuds, the most effective being the QC20.
The Bose Quiet Comfort 20 have a special type of ear tips—StayHear+ ear tips—which don’t have to be pushed in your ear, but sit on the ear canal entrance. These tips make them very comfortable and provide a good seal with no ear pressure. I can wear them for a whole day with no problems whatsoever.
They work fine for back sleepers. Because they are protruding from the ear, they are not ideal for a side sleeper with a standard pillow.
However, they certainly work for me when I sleep on the side with the above-mentioned travel pillow.
Depending on how sensitive your are, a soft memory foam pillow might also do the trick.
The QC20 too are good for eliminating low frequency noise, so if your neighbor’s woofer or traffic rumble is bothering you at night they are very well worth your consideration.
I currently use the QC20 a lot during the day in tropical weather. Unlike over-the-head headphones and earmuffs, they don’t get sweaty.
However, for snoring, speech noise, and environmental noise in general, the QC35 are significantly better.
Besides, while this post is about alternatives to earplugs for sleeping, you can very well wear earplugs underneath the QC35, turning them in an absolute formidable yet comfortable noise blocker.
Sleep headphones are headbands with flat, soft speaker inserts. They are designed for both side and back sleepers. These headphones don’t block any noise by themselves. You play white noise using an app for your smart phone to mask moderate noise that keeps you awake.
The advantage of these headband headphones for sleeping is that you don’t need to stick anything in your ear.
If you need to block loud noise, these headphones alone won’t be enough.
However, you can wear earplugs (foam or wax) underneath and play white noise on top of that. This combination makes for a very effective snoring noise blocker.
Personally, I use my night table white noise machine, usually together with earplugs, more often than sleep headphones. I find that combination more comfortable.
But, if you need to block really loud noise, the combination of sleep headphones and earplugs is slightly more effective.
Alternatively, play white noise through sleep earbuds to mask moderate noise. My favorite sleep earbuds are made of soft silicone. I find them more comfortable than sleep headphones.
With sleep earbuds you can’t wear earplugs underneath, so you completely rely on the isolation the earbuds provide and noise masking via white noise.
This works well for moderate noise coming from adjacent rooms.
However, sleep earbuds are not ideal for masking a loud snorer and other loud noise. I would have to crank up the white noise volume to the point where the white noise would likely keep me awake.
Passive noise cancelling earmuffs for sleeping
Noise reduction earmuffs are great for blocking noise during the day and protecting your hearing. Students, office workers, and meditators also increasingly use them to increase focus and concentration.
I have done an extensive review of noise cancelling earmuffs. Unfortunately the most effective ones are also the bulkiest, making it almost impossible to sleep with them on the side.
Also, to provide their excellent noise reduction, earmuffs’ clamping force is higher than that of normal headphones, and may be too high for you to sleep.
However, if you are strictly a back sleeper, these earmuffs could work.
If you are a side sleeper, and find the other suggested earplug alternatives either not acceptable or too pricey, some earmuffs do have a slim-enough profile for side sleeping if you use them together with the above-mentioned u-shaped pillow.
I wouldn’t be able to use muffs with a normal pillow, but I have successfully tried these two while lying on my side with my travel pillow:
The 3M Peltor Optime 95 are economical and have very slim ear cups. Their noise reduction rating (NRR) is 21. They have ear cushions which also fit larger ears.
The 3M Peltor X4A (NRR 27) have equally slim cups but are more effective noise blockers. The downside: the opening of their ear cushions is smaller than the Optime 95’s which can make them uncomfortable for people with large ears.
To improve on their comfort, you can buy 3M gel ear cushions. These cushions work with both the Optime 95 and the X4A, offer a much larger opening for the ears, and are more comfortable.
Unfortunately, these cushions are quite expensive, so it makes sense to try first whether earmuffs for sleeping are for you at all.
Note: The gel ear cushions slightly reduce the noise reduction effectiveness of both earmuffs. They fit, but are not certified for use with these muffs as a hearing protector. Still they are a great hack for sleeping with earmuffs.
You may wonder, how do these compare to the Bose QC35 over-the-head active noise cancelling headphones?
Well, the QC35 are as slim as these low-profile earmuffs and they are a more comfortable. Additionally, they are a lot more effective for low-frequency noise.
If money wasn’t an issue, I’d definitely prefer the QC35 for sleeping.
But still, these earmuffs may offer an economical solution that can help you to fend off sleeplessness.
The combination of foam earplugs plus white noise machine is one of my favorite solutions for night time noise blocking. If I couldn’t use foam anymore, I would keep the sound machine and use wax earplugs.
If you don’t like earplugs for sleeping at all, try one of the alternatives laid out in this post: I would start with a white noise machine all by itself.
For moderate noise, sleep headphones and sleep earbuds together with a white noise app are also good option.
Earmuffs are very effective noise blockers and an option for back sleepers. Their main downsides: they are bulky; they might exert too much pressure for sensitive sleepers. Again, their effectiveness can be augmented with a white noise machine.
The leading active noise cancelling headphones are great for low-frequency noise and a good option for reducing noise in general. They are a lot more comfortable than earmuffs.
I am mostly a side sleeper and don’t want to break the headphones, but I would deploy them if the noise became unbearable.
With foam earplugs underneath, they are probably as good as it gets for eliminating night time noise. (I also highly recommend this combination when traveling on an airplane.)
If you are a back sleeper and willing to spend the cash, active noise cancelling headphones could become your sanctuary.