I have a history with sleeplessness caused by night-time noise. It started a few years after I had moved to Asia to take on a new job.
The first four years everything went well, but then I had the idea to upgrade and get myself a nicer apartment. It was right in the city center, but it was also close to an elevated multi-lane expressway. I knew that and I thought I could cope with the traffic noise.
What I didn’t know was that the concrete slabs that covered the curb-side drainage close to my house would make a clanking noise whenever a car drove over them.
What I couldn’t know was that half a year later I would get upstairs neighbors whose life at home started after midnight.
Just when everything had settled down and all cars had finally been parked on the slabs would my friends upstairs come home and start walking—stomping to be precise—at a rapid pace on top of my bedroom.
I had no idea how to cope with this noise onslaught. I tried a couple of different earplugs. They didn’t do anything to block the noise.
After sleeping only two to three hours on average for the following year, I had had enough and moved out and on.
Unfortunately, that time somehow conditioned me and made me more sensitive to noise at night.
I tried to sleep with the noise, to accept it.
That, unfortunately, didn’t work so well. It is easy to understand that your stress response is being triggered, but it is another thing to prevent it.
Out of necessity, I started experimenting with all kinds of noise blocking and noise cancelling devices I could get my hands on.
I did learn how to block out noise when trying to sleep and how to mask noise to take the edge off of it.
In this post I am sharing this experience with you.
Common startling noises
Sudden, unexpected noises tend to startle us and put us in an alarmed state. Here are the usual suspects:
- Slamming doors
- Honking horns
- Barking dogs
- A spoon falling on a tiled floor
- Someone coughing
- Someone stomping
- A rumbling truck passing by
- And so on.
Other noise grabs our attention and annoys us
- The TV coming from the neighbors
- Our bedmate’s snoring
- Water dripping in the bathtub
- People chatting outside our door
- Someone in the kitchen doing the dishes
- This list is endless
And then there is low-frequency rumbling and humming
- Generators, water pumps, and wind turbines
- Airplane noise
- The neighbors having a party
- Traffic noise from afar
My favorite way to block out noise when trying to sleep
Most days, I play a white noise machine located on my night stand and put in foam earplugs.
This combination tends to work extremely well for moderate and even loud noise.
Foam earplugs reduce noise by a lot and they can do it across all frequencies.
To make them work, you have to select a pair that fits you and you have to learn how to insert them properly.
The image above illustrates some of the different sizes available for foam earplugs.
The 1100 earplugs are even a bit more comfortable. When I insert them, they are a bit stiff, which is handy for insertion. Once they have warmed up they are very soft, almost unnoticeable.
Because of this feature though, they are difficult to reinsert. You have to let them cool down first.
For more help on selecting a pair for your ears and inserting them, read my post on the best earplugs to block snoring.
Many people insert earplugs only partially and lose out on most of their noise cancelling performance
Other people only stuff them in. I was one of them.
When I started using them, I was disappointed with foam earplugs. They just didn’t seem to block much noise.
I had no idea that you need real skill to properly insert them and hence also didn’t know which earplugs fit me.
If you, like the average user, only partially insert your earplugs, and you are lucky, they can still provide a seal and muffle higher frequency noise. But you will likely lose 20 to 30 decibels noise reduction at lower frequencies.
And you might not even know it. You might think that’s all earplugs can do.
You will hear lower frequency noise up to 8 times as loud as need be. What’s more, because the earplugs don’t reduce all frequencies equally, suddenly certain noises stand out; your mind focuses on them and keeps you awake.
The occlusion effect is another problem with partially inserted foam earplugs and earplugs that only seal the ear canal entrance, like most moldable wax and silicone earplugs:
You suddenly hear noises like your own heartbeat, and your own voice may sound bassy and amplified. These body-generated noises pass through the ear canal wall, but can’t escape because the entrance is sealed.
I have learned that you can minimize the occlusion effect and vastly improve low frequency noise blocking by inserting earplugs deeply
I have done it wrong for quite a while, so I want to emphasize it: you need to really learn and practice earplug insertion to get the best out of them.
Don’t expect your two ear canals to be exactly the same either.
I find it more difficult to get a seal with earplugs in my right ear canal. It is somehow bent differently.
By using an earpiece lubricant, I have been able to overcome this issue: I apply a drop at the canal entrance, roll up the plug, pull up my ear and slide it in.
You also need to select an earplug that is comfortable to sleep with for the whole night.
I have tried many different foam earplugs and due to experience, I can now get a good seal with a lot of them. Still, some just won’t work for me.
Other earplugs block noise very well— perhaps better than my favorites, but I wake up with pain in my ears.
I had to reject some of the most effective earplugs because I just could not tolerate them for a whole night.
Why do I use a white noise machine in addition to earplugs at night?
For a long time, I used only earplugs. But, as I mentioned, when wearing earplugs some noises suddenly stand out. My mind focuses on them and keeps me awake.
For instance, TV chatter from the living room leaks into my bedroom and annoys me.
Or, a neighbor might slam their door. The earplugs made everything so quiet and now there is this sudden “bam.”
The white noise machine introduces a background noise, so it doesn’t get too quiet.
Because white noise is constant, like a stream or waterfall that just keeps on going, this noise doesn’t bother me. I am in control of how loud I play it and what pitch I choose.
This water stream does, however, mask (=drown out) the TV, creaking noises and other intermittent noises. They just disappear. Really loud noises may not be completely gone, but the sound background takes the edge off these noises as well.
I use the Lectrofan shown in the picture. This sound machine has white noise and fan sounds. It generates these sounds on the fly, rather than looping a pre-recorded sequence.
The pitch of white noise can be adjusted in ten different levels (including pink noise and brown noise), so you can match it to the noise you want to get rid of and your personal preference. Alternatively, you can select one of ten different fan sounds.
I find this adjustability a lot more important than, for example, additional soundscapes like chirping birds.
And when wearing good earplugs, I can really crank up this white noise machine before it disturbs my sleep. The Lectrofan can be set very quiet, but also blast out sound at up to 80 dBA.
This might become a problem though if your partner doesn’t wear earplugs or doesn’t like white noise. Perhaps you could convince them to wear earplugs as well.
A white noise machine by itself can also be an alternative to earplugs for sleeping
If you cannot tolerate earplugs in your ear, using only a white noise machine may be enough even for louder noise.
For example, white noise has been successfully used in hospital intensive care units (ICUs). If you have been to one, you will know that these machines and medical equipment make a lot of noise.
Playing white noise in such an ICU significantly reduced the number of awakenings and improved the quality of sleep for patients.
Adding a sound backdrop to mask startling noises obviously makes the room even louder.
But what counts is that the noise level varies a lot less. After a while the brain just starts ignoring it.
A dripping water tap isn’t very loud, but it annoys the heck out of me. But I won’t hear it at all when that tap is close to a waterfall, or a white noise machine.
Even your neighbor’s dog that is always barking when someone passes by might be a good candidate for noise masking. I could play white noise at the same volume and likely be able to fall asleep.
It’s the fact that these barks come out of nowhere against a quiet backdrop that makes them startling and wakes us up.
Sleep headphones are also good for playing white noise and won’t disturb your partner
Sleep headphones are headbands with built-in flat speakers. As the name suggests, they are designed specifically for sleeping. They work for both back and side sleepers. If you are a side sleeper like me, you might have to experiment a bit with the position of the speakers and the pillow.
Because the speakers are closer to the ear, they can be even more effective at drowning out outside noise than the white noise machine on your night stand. If you want to block moderate noise you can use them all by themselves.
Just play white noise, ocean waves or rain sounds, instrumental music, or even ASMR to mask the noise that is bothering you.
I have several different sleep headphones:
The three shown in the image are as follows:
- CozyPhones Contour: These are good for warmer climates and have a pleasant, detailed sound. They lack bass though.
- AcousticSheep’s Sleepphones have the best bass and the flattest speakers of all sleep headbands I own. They sound warm, but a bit muffled. They are good for cooler climates or a cool AC setting.
- Firik’s headband phones tend to be the cheapest, but they also have the thinnest sound. The first two are better for listening to music, but these work too for playing white noise.
What white noise app do I use with these headphones?
These days I use mostly myNoise on my iPad (also available as myNoise for Android). With this app, I can finely tune the white noise pitch to perfectly match the noise mix I want to get rid of. TV chatter, snoring, and traffic noise all have a different spectrum. Combined they may yet have another spectrum. myNoise can adapt to all these.
But this app is actually a lot more: It is a complete sound machine, including multiple generators for white noise, binaural beats, tinnitus masking, ocean surf, rain sounds, etc. And it sounds great.
Sleep headbands are sometimes advertised as noise or even snore blocking, but I think this is overly optimistic
All sleep headbands I know of only muffle higher frequencies. They don’t block or cancel noise. As with a white noise machine, you are relying on noise masking—drowning out offending sounds with white noise or other sounds.
If I need to block really loud noise like obnoxious snoring or loud traffic noise, sleep headphones alone (and white noise machines in general) are not effective enough for me.
But they can be made into a formidable noise blocker:
Combine sleep headphones with earplugs to block very loud noise at night
To make them more effective I wear earplugs underneath. That way I can even fall asleep in the presence of a loud snorer and most other noise: loud Rottweiler – checked. TV next door, or even in the same room – checked.
Consider blocking snoring noise to see how this works so well:
The earplugs reduce snoring noise substantially and take the sting out of the lower pitched parts.
But if you are dealing with a loud snorer, you would still hear some of this pronounced “chrrrrr,” you would still hear these snore crests. Heck, you might even wait for them.
Despite advertising to the contrary, I know of no earplugs that can completely eliminate loud snoring.
I think they cannot exist because of bone conduction: we would hear noise above a certain volume through our skull if our ear canal was completely soundproofed.
But with sleep headphones on top of my earplugs, the snore peaks just disappear in a sea of white noise.
Should you choose sleep headphones or a white noise machine?
I prefer to have as little as possible around my ears while sleeping. I find the white noise machine on my nightstand the most comfortable solution.
There is nothing in my ears and nothing on my ears that can exert any pressure.
Next on the list are carefully selected foam earplugs.
I prefer comfortable earplugs over sleep headphones and earbuds.
So if the white noise machine plus the earplugs can take care of the noise, that’s my solution.
This is what I use most nights these days.
But the combination of sleep headphones, white noise app, and earplugs is more effective than the white noise machine plus earplugs. So when my favorite combination is not enough, I switch to sleep headphones.
You might want to fall asleep with music or ASMR, or your spouse might not like the white noise machine. In that case, sleep headphones might be better to start with.
Do noise cancelling headphones work for sleeping?
What can you do about rumbling trucks that drive by every hour or upstairs neighbors who are having a party?
The combination of sleep headphones/white noise machine plus earplugs is likely going to take care of most noise situations.
But what if the people upstairs keep walking heavily, what it they are stomping? What if their subwoofer emits this all-permeating booming bass?
It is a sad fact that bass sounds can travel far and through walls.
What do you hear from that car turned into a boom box on wheels from afar? Yes, it is this all-permeating woofer.
Deeply inserted earplugs are the most effective passive way to reduce low-frequency noise. But they might not be enough.
If you are a back sleeper there is one more thing you can do:
You could wear very good (!) active noise cancelling headphones on top of earplugs. These use electronics that generate a counter sound to cancel out noise.
Active noise cancellers work best for low-frequency noise. I have a pair of Bose QC35 noise cancelling headphones. They are very comfortable and I use them for naps during the day.
I sleep mostly on my side at night, which makes it difficult to wear over-the-ear headphones. Besides I don’t want to break them.
But when I nap during the day, I usually lie on my back. I don’t really know why, but that’s what I do.
To test the noise cancelling, I placed a subwoofer emitting bass sounds from 30 to 250 Hz in my bedroom and cranked it up. The whole room seemed to be vibrating. Think home theater…
I deeply inserted the most effective earplugs I have. They hurt after a while so they are not my preferred choice, but I wanted to see what is possible.
The plugs did substantially reduce the noise! But I still felt way too exposed and the low-frequency noise was agitating me.
I put the QC35 headphones on top of the earplugs and switched them on. I was astonished how well they cancelled the rumble the woofer was producing.
Most of the sound that I thought was conducted through my body was actually still coming through my ears and up to a certain level the combination headphones plus earplugs did get rid of it.
So this would indeed be my last stand. Up to a certain volume these noise cancellers remove enough of the bass to allow me to fall asleep.
Bone conduction places limits on how much you can reduce noise by occluding your ears.
For lower-frequency sounds from 125 Hz to 500 Hz, 50 to 60 dB noise reduction can be achieved before sound conducted through the skull (and the rest of the body) becomes dominant. For even lower frequencies there isn’t much data.
But a 50 – 60 dB noise reduction is very difficult to achieve.
I think that the combination of earplugs and Bose QC35 noise cancelling headphones does indeed get me pretty close to this limit for these obnoxious bass frequencies.
But there is a limit. Above a certain sound level, you can unfortunately feel and hear the vibrations despite having perfectly shielded your ear.
The double protection of noise cancelling headphones and earplugs also works for higher frequencies.
For the mid and even higher frequencies the Bose are like slim passive earmuffs. The insulation blocks noise and adds to the earplugs. Depending on the frequency, this can make quite a difference.
Here is some background info for this:
For hearing protection in high-noise environments, workers have to double up; that is, they wear earplugs and on top of them industrial earmuffs. But bone conduction is still the limit, so you won’t get double the noise reduction.
For that reason, slimmer earmuffs with less attenuation tend to give almost as much benefit when doubling up as bulkier earmuffs that would be a lot more effective by themselves.
Note though that you may not double up with noise cancelling headphones when hearing protection is required! Unlike industrial earmuffs, they do not have a noise reduction rating.
Playing white noise through active noise cancellers plus wearing earplugs underneath is also the most effective solution for cancelling snoring noise
So far, nothing else I have tried comes close to the combination of these Bose noise cancelling headphones and earplugs for blocking snoring noise.
The headphones remove the bass from the snores.
They also work in concert with the earplugs as passive muffs for the mid and higher frequencies and block most of the snoring.
Playing white noise through them and whatever may be left of that snore-“chrrr” fades away.
Realistically this combination is only available to back sleepers.
The combination of white noise machine plus foam earplugs is my favorite noise blocking solution at night. It is comfortable and effective. This is what I use most nights.
As mentioned above, it is important to choose your earplugs wisely and learn how to insert them deeply.
If this is not enough, I would switch to sleep headphones with earplugs underneath and play white noise through the phones.
Using only a white noise machine or sleep headphones is an alternative if you cannot tolerate foam earplugs. If you want more noise blocking but no foam earplugs, try white noise plus moldable wax or silicone earplugs. While not nearly as effective as foam plugs, these might be good enough for your purpose.
The best noise blocking solution for sleep that I have found is Bose noise cancelling headphones plus earplugs and white noise (myNoise). I use this combination for napping during the day.
Earplugs and these noise cancelling headphones plus white noise work synergistically and effectively block loud noise, snoring noise, and even bass sounds—up to the point where you start feeling and hearing the sounds through your body.
Because the headphones are comfortable, this combination works fine for me when lying on my back. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to make this work when sleeping on my side.
So these are my favorite ways to block out noise while sleeping.
What are yours? Let me know in the comments.
Have a good night.