How to Use White Noise for Better Sleep – It Is Easy and Works

Hot to use white noise for better sleep

In this post, I’ll offer specific advice on how you can use white noise to improve your sleep and remove night time noise.

I am going to detail how to administer white noise for better sleep and cover specific white noise machines, apps, and headphones to generate white noise in your bedroom.

We will also look at the best ways to combine white noise with other noise blockers such as foam, silicone, and wax earplugs.

I have been an avid day-and-night-time user of white noise for several years and have tested all tools and techniques mentioned in this post.

Contents:

What does white noise sound like, what is it?

Strictly speaking, white noise is random broadband noise—the noise extends across all frequencies we can hear—and its intensity is the same at all frequencies.

More commonly, when people are talking about white noise, they are actually referring to a whole family of broadband noises, including brown noise, pink noise, and “real” white noise.

In this post, when I use the term white noise, I am referring to the whole family.

Many people, including myself, find real white noise has too much hiss and prefer pink noise. This is because our hearing is more sensitive at higher frequencies.

To get an idea of what we are talking about, listening is better than a thousand words, so here are the three major noise colors:

White Noise (the same intensity at all frequencies)

 

Pink Noise (more intensity in the lower frequencies)

 

Brownian Noise (even more intensity in the lower frequencies)

 

For optimal results, you shouldn’t limit yourself to these three noise colors though: the white noise sleep machine I am using has ten different noise colors, and my favorite app even has an equalizer, allowing for almost endless variations.

Why is this important?

  • The frequency response of your headphones or speakers and your room acoustics influence how pleasant you’ll find a particular noise color and how effective it is going to be.
  • In this post, I will suggest combinations of white noise and earplugs, and most earplugs don’t reduce all frequencies evenly. This uneven noise reduction changes the character of the white noise.
  • To account for these unknowns, your white noise machine/app should allow you to change the pitch of the noise.

In summary, ideally you want to be able to adapt the noise to your bedroom, the environmental noise you are exposed to, and your earplugs if you are wearing any.

And, you want to feel comfortable listening to it so that you can drift to sleep.

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Does white noise really help people sleep better?

From personal experience, I can affirm: Yes, it does help me to sleep better, so it is worth it.

The scientific experiments that have been done on white noise and sleep—while few in numbers— suggest that white noise does indeed help people to fall asleep significantly faster and to stay asleep.

The improvements are substantial.

I have included some of these experiments in the next sections, in particular the ones we can directly apply.

The alternatives either have a lot more side effects (sleep medication) or take a lot more effort to learn (cognitive therapy and relaxation techniques).

Besides, sleep medication and cognitive therapy are ill-equipped to deal with the big elephant that is night-time noise coming in all shapes and forms, including barking dogs, snoring partners, neighbors cranking up the TV, crickets, creaking wood floors… You name it.

White noise on the other hand can help you to get rid of these noises, calm down a racing mind, and perhaps even directly induce sleep.

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How quiet should your bedroom be for good sleep?

In their Guidelines for community noise, WHO recommends that during sleep, the average noise level should not exceed 30 dBA, and individual noise events/peaks (e.g., creaking, shutting doors, barking) should not exceed 45 dBA to prevent noise-induced awakenings.

Important notes:

Ten decibels (dB) more may not sound like a lot, but it is perceived as a doubling of the volume. So 40 dB is twice as loud as 30 dB, and 50 dB is four times as loud as 30 dB.

I just measured the noise level in my bedroom with a sound level meter and the NIOSH sound level meter app:

The average was about 33 dBA. When I turned on the AC with the fan set to high, this value rose to between 43 and 44 dBA.

how to measure the noise in your bedroom

But this is continuous noise.  The peak value (Lmax) measured in a 5-minute time period was 61 dBA—17 decibels above the noise background (in the screenshot it is 55.8, but that later rose further).

So as per WHO-recommendations, my bedroom is too loud.

Yet the noise in my bedroom is fairly typical for an urban apartment close to a busier road. Personally, I find the average background noise in my apartment OK.

What is more important than the background noise level is the difference between this background noise and peak noise events such as a barking dog or someone slamming a door.

Looking at the WHO recommendation again, the maximum permitted difference would be 15 dBA (45-30 dBA).

This is in line with what studies in hospitals have found: on average, noise peaks that were 17 decibels above baseline were associated with arousals. You can find more on this in the next section.

Within 5 minutes, I already had an event that would likely cause an arousal (a sleep disturbance) or even a complete awakening.

As we will see below, because it can reduce this difference, white noise is such a potent tool for improving sleep.

If you want to get an idea of how quiet your bedroom is, the sound level meter app for iOS by NIOSH is quite accurate. Try this app and see how you go.

Unfortunately, this app is not available for Android phones. NIOSH state they are not able to make an app that would be accurate enough across the multitude of different hardware platforms and software variants used on Android.

There are plenty of apps in Google Play, but you have to be aware that their performance will vary (sometimes  widely) depending on your device.

I too am hesitant to recommend an Android app, but I know you may be eager to check out your bedroom: I tried the app Sound Meter by Abc Apps on a Samsung Galaxy J7 Core alongside the NIOSH app, and the display readings were comparable in my bedroom. I would, however, not use this app to determine whether I need hearing protection in a loud environment.

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Why does white noise help people sleep better?

1. Adding white noise to environmental noise makes the background louder, but it improves sleep because it reduces the difference between background and peak noise events.

Sudden, unexpected noise peaks startle us. The worst case is that they wake us up or jolt us out of falling asleep, but even if they don’t quite wake us up, they can cause arousals (changes in brain activity) that lead to less restful sleep and next day tiredness.

What is important here: it is the difference between the noise peaks and the background noise rather than the absolute noise level that evokes these arousals.

This was tested in a study with ICU noise:

Intensive care units (ICUs) can be very loud places. In a study conducted at Rhode Island Hospital, 150-200 sound peaks of >80 decibels were observed between midnight and 6 am on average.

In a follow-up study, the researchers explored whether added white noise can help people exposed to ICU noise sleep better. They exposed healthy test subjects to no added noise (baseline), recorded ICU noise (57.9 dB on average) or the same ICU noise plus added white noise (61.1 dB on average) for an entire night.

The number of arousals for the baseline night was 13.3 per hour; this increased to 48.4 arousals per hour during the ICU-noise night and went back to baseline (15.7 per hour) when white noise was added to the ICU noise.

So while the ICU noise plus white noise combination was actually louder than the ICU noise by itself, the number of arousals went back to normal under white noise.

The researchers concluded that it was the difference between background noise and peak noise that was causing the arousals rather than the absolute noise level.

Adding white noise—while making the background louder—reduced this difference and thus reduced the number of arousals to less than one third.

In that study, the noise difference (peak-background) that evoked an arousal was 17.5 dB on average. The researchers also cited a different study in which 15.5 dB on average were associated with arousals—in line with the WHO recommendation.

I am mentioning these numbers because they can give us some data for setting the volume of our own white noise machines.

2. White noise completely masks quieter distracting and annoying noises, so they just become part of the background.

This is similar to point 1 but deals with quieter noises that might keep you from falling asleep.

Even quiet, repeatedly occurring or incidental noises can keep me from falling asleep—in particular, if I find them annoying and start focusing on them.

The classical example is the dripping water tap in the bathroom.

Another example is the air-con thermostat in my bedroom that switches on the compressor when the room temperature gets too high.

Yet another one is the faint TV chatter coming from the hotel room a few doors down the hallway.

Moderate, steady-state white noise drowns out (mask) this kind of noise so it just disappears.

Just imagine the dripping water-tap being close to a water stream (or white noise stream) instead of in your otherwise quiet bathroom:  You wouldn’t hear it anymore. There is nothing to focus on, so your mind quickly gets bored and you drift away.

In a recent white noise sleep study performed by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, the researchers compared two conditions to test whether white noise at a moderate volume can help people to fall asleep faster.

  • Normal environmental noise, measured at 40 dB.
  • The same environmental noise with added white noise played at 46 dB.

When white noise was added (2.), the subjects took on average 38% less time to reach a stable sleep stage (N2).

3. A white noise machine puts you back in control of your noise environment and reduces stress: you set the volume, not the neighbor or the rooster.

Anxiety and stress by themselves can keep you awake: “What if they come home and again slam the car door just when I am about to fall asleep? What if this dog starts barking when I am drifting away? I’ll be up all night.”

On the other hand, after you have gotten some positive experience with white noise, you expect it to work and relax. Being relaxed is what you need to fall asleep.

4. White noise and other ambient sounds give a racing mind something else to immerse itself in.

Immerse yourself in white noise

I mostly use conditioned white noise with a pitch that makes it sound like a distant waterfall. If need be, I can imagine myself being immersed in this waterfall. This takes the focus away from ruminating thoughts or worries I may have.

Some people use ASMR, ocean surf, tropical rain, etc. to relax and give their mind a break.

OK, so now let’s get to exactly how to use white noise for improving sleep:

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How to mask moderate noise with a white noise machine if you are sensitive to noise or a light sleeper

Whenever my bedroom’s AC-unit switches on the compressor, it makes a slight “click.” It is by no means loud, but sometimes enough to jolt me out of “falling asleep.”

Against a quieter noise backdrop at night, many people’s hearing sensitivity is increased and it doesn’t take much to keep them from falling asleep or wake them up, as long as they are in a light sleep stage.

In the experiment, Sound Administration Improves Sleep Onset Latency, subjects were trying to fall asleep exposed to environmental noise at about 40 decibels.

When the experimenters added white noise with a sound level of 46 dB (the noise pitch was set to match the room characteristics), the test subjects took on average 38 percent less time to fall into a solid sleep (N2).

The noise level in that experiment was similar to my bedroom’s. With my AC’s fan set to high speed I measure about 43 dB, at medium-speed about 41 dB.

I replicated the experiment in my bedroom using my trusted Lectrofan white noise machine. The Lectrofan allows me to cycle through ten different white noises using a push button.  I used noise number 4, which sounds great in my room and set it to 46 dB.

Lectrofan white noise machine

This sound level worked really well. The AC’s click-sounds and other normal noises coming from adjacent apartments disappeared.

At odd times, neighbors or people outside on the street make noise, and if I am unlucky, this wakes me up.

To prevent this, I usually keep the Lectrofan playing throughout the night, so that it masks these intermittent noises too.

If you only need white noise to fall asleep, this machine also has a timer which you can set in 60-minute increments.

How loud should you set your white noise machine?

I would say as loud as necessary to mask apparent annoying noises so that they don’t keep you from falling asleep—and no more.

At its maximum volume, the Lectrofan can blast out sound at 80 decibels. For normal use, this is way too loud. But as you will read below, at times this sound blast comes in very handy.

Without earplugs I find up to 50 decibels acceptable, and this is the maximum I recommend you use without earplugs.

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How do you use white noise together with earplugs to remove loud noise

You can increase the volume of the Lectrofan to get rid of almost any environmental noise.

I have successfully deployed white noise to counter people talking in the hallway, TVs in neighboring hotel rooms, balking dogs and crowing roosters, motorcycle and other traffic noise, etc. Even most snoring noise can be drowned out this way.

Playing white noise at 70 to 80 decibels in your bedroom covers almost anything or makes it faint enough so that you won’t get annoyed by it.

The problem is that sound played at this kind of volume can become a disturbance in itself and interfere with restful sleep.

The surprisingly simple but effective solution is to wear earplugs to bring the volume down to a comfortable level.

So to block out loud noise that is disturbing your sleep:

  1. Put in your earplugs (see below for suggestions).
  2. Increase the white noise volume to the point that it makes the annoying noises disappear (or almost disappear).
  3. Adjust the white noise pitch for even better results: for example, when masking lower-pitched sounds, lower-pitched white noise is more effective. If it sounds right, it probably is.

Voila, the offenders have effectively been masked by white noise, and your earplugs have brought the overall level down to a comfortable background “fffffff.”

Note:

If you are bothered by intermittent noises at night, you may not know how loud to turn up your white noise machine.

Just set the volume so that it feels comfortable while wearing your earplugs. Going by ear, I usually end up with 60 dB (set to white noise #4 or #5 on the Lectrofan).

If you remember, ICUs are loud places, and in the ICU hospital noise experiment, they successfully used about 62 dB.

Even if intermittent disturbing noises are not completely masked, white noise can still be effective:

As you may recall from the ICU experiment, you only need to reduce the difference between peak noise and background so that the peaks don’t arouse you anymore.

How does this work with different types of earplugs?

Foam earplugs (like the 3M-1100 or Hearos Xtreme)

With foam earplugs such as the 3M-1100 and the Hearos, I can play white noise up to a level of about 70 decibels, which is plenty for most applications.

For more suggestions and how to insert foam earplugs for maximum performance also check out my earplugs post.

combine foam earplugs with white noise

For occasional use, I could even tolerate 80 decibels with deeply inserted earplugs, and frankly, I would play my white noise machine that loud if that allows me to sleep.

Generally though I don’t recommend you use that kind of volume.

Silicone putty and wax earplugs

These also work well in combination with white noise.

With silicone putty or wax earplugs, I feel comfortable with a noise level of up to 55 decibels.

Yes, this is less than what you can use together with foam earplugs, but white noise still vastly enhances the effectiveness of this type of earplugs.

So if you feel more comfortable with these, give the combination silicone/wax earplugs plus white noise machine a try.

silicone putty and wax earplugs with white noise

Earplugs don’t reduce noise evenly across all frequencies, and different types of earplugs exhibit different characteristics:

Deeply inserted foam earplugs are good at reducing low-frequency noise, but will typically still eliminate more of high-pitched sounds.

Wax and silicone-putty earplugs on the other hand, because they seal only the ear canal entrance, block much less low-frequency noise and can even enhance body-generated lower pitched-sounds (occlusion effect).

However, they are very effective at blocking higher-pitched noise and you can use white noise to make up for the “low-frequency weakness.”

To adapt your white noise pitch to your altered hearing-sensitivity when wearing earplugs, you need a machine that allows you to do that. My Lectrofan offers 10 different white noise frequency curves and “cooperates” very well with earplugs.

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How to block out very loud noise, including snoring with sleep headphones, earplugs, and white noise

Sleep headphones are headbands that have thin, soft speakers embedded. You can sleep with them on your side or on your back.

sleep headphpones to play white noise

By themselves, they don’t block or cancel noise. After all, they are made out of fabric. But you can sleep with them and they are very good for playing white noise.

I suggest that you put in foam earplugs, wear your sleep headband on top of the earplugs, and then play white noise using a white noise app. This makes for a formidable noise blocker.

For this application, I recommend the generator White Noise & Co in the myNoise app, which is available for iOS and Android, and allows you to finely adjust the white noise pitch using a 10-band equalizer.  In addition, you can also experiment with sounds of nature such as water streams, rain, waterfalls, and more.

As to sleep headbands:  Acoustic Sheep’s SleepPhones Classic (more bass, for cooler temperatures) and CozyPhones Contour (brighter sound, better for warm weather) are good options.

To avoid getting entangled in the cable and use them with phones that don’t have a headphone jack, I use a Bluetooth receiver which connects to my iPad and Android phone. Currently I mostly use the Mpow BH203 at night. It has a great battery (about 15 hours). This is crucial if you want to play white noise for the whole night. (Many Bluetooth headphones and receivers only play for 5 to 6 hours.)  You don’t want to be woken up because of an empty battery.

I have attached a clip with Velcro tape, so I can just clip the receiver to my shirt. Works like a charm.

bluetooth receiver to stream white noise

How does this compare to the combination white noise machine + earplugs?

Personally, I find the combination of earplugs and white noise machine on my nightstand more comfortable and hassle-free, so this is what I use most nights. It is easy to set up and effective.

Besides, these days, phone batteries are not user-replaceable anymore, so if you want to play white noise throughout the night, a white noise machine is likely also going to be cheaper in the long run.

However, the combination of sleep headphones + earplugs + white noise app is even more effective than the combination earplugs + white noise machine for blocking very loud noise. It makes for a formidable snore noise blocker.

And, if your partner cannot sleep with a white noise machine playing at a louder volume, sleep headphones together with earplugs and a white noise app are a great alternative.

Last but not least, sleep headphones and foam earplugs are more portable. They fit even in a small handbag or pouch.

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Conclusion

Currently I live in a busy city and my neighborhood is fairly noisy. In this environment, white noise has proven extremely useful to help me sleep better. It removes almost all sudden noises that either keep me awake or wake me up.

Most nights, I wear foam earplugs such as the 3M-1100, and I have the Lectrofan on my nightstand. I put in the earplugs, set my white noise machine to the 4th or 5th white noise option, and turn up the volume so that I can hear white noise playing at a moderate volume (with the earplugs in my ears).  I leave the white noise on throughout the night. You could also use the built-in timer if you only need it to fall asleep.

When measuring it, I usually find the white noise playing at around 60 decibels. Sometimes when I am worried about noise, I set it a little higher. When necessary, I will set it even substantially higher.

If your environment is quieter you may not need earplugs to make white noise work for you. If you adjust your white noise for comfort without earplugs, you’ll automatically end up with a lower volume. I recommend that you don’t continuously go above 50 decibels if you are not wearing any earplugs.

If you have a child in the room, I recommend you stay below 50 decibels at all times. Alternatively, consider using sleep headphones as outlined above.

In this post, I have laid out various options for how you can use white noise to improve your sleep, why it works, and how you can measure the noise in your bedroom.

I have used all options described in this post (and more) and they all fit slightly different scenarios.

I wish you a good night’s sleep.


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