Why White Noise Helps You Sleep

July 27, 2017
white noise sleep

Have you ever had a fan running in your bedroom when you fell asleep?

If so, then you probably got one of the better night sleeps you’ve had in a while. The noise that most household fans make (on low speed) is called “white noise” and it has been scientifically proven to help you fall and stay asleep. White noise is just one of many natural ways you use to fall asleep.

What is White Noise?

At its most basic level, white noise is nothing more than an anti-noise mechanism. Think of a bedroom fan (the floor standing model). As you turn the dial to “low” you will hear it emitting a low hum. This is white noise. As you are falling asleep, you brain tunes into this noise and it blocks out other annoying noises, such as your partner snoring or someone honking the horn of their car on the street.

Even though it seems counter-intuitive, making noise in your bedroom so you won’t be awakened by noise has a scientific explanation behind it.

Let’s go back to our bedroom fan example. The sound emanating from it contains a lot of different tones. However, each tone has the same intensity. The noise is boring, steady and monotonous.

Your brain needs that steady and monotonous noise level when you go to sleep. As you sleep your hearing is still working, which is a throwback to when man lived in caves and had to be on alert in case a sabretooth tiger suddenly decided he wanted a midnight snack.

When a car alarm, barking dog or loud teenagers start making noise in the middle of the night, your brain is programmed to wake you from sleep in case you need to defend or protect yourself. This is a classic example of the “fight or flight” mechanism of your brain.

When your brain hears a noise in the middle of the night, as part of the waking sequence, it raises your blood pressure, increase your heart rate and eventually wakes you up. This is why it’s hard for some people to fall back asleep after they’ve been awoken at night by a loud noise.

White noise generators basically drown out loud noises so that you’re less likely to hear them. This is great if you live in an especially noisy area.

  • Teenagers playing loud music outside
  • Airplanes landing or taking off
  • Street noise such as cars and traffic
  • Animals such as the barking dog who lives next door 

Types of White Noise

Scientists have classified 11 different types of noises. They have given each noise a name:

White, pink, brown(ian), blue, violet, grey, red, green, black, noisy white, noisy black.

The science gets pretty in-depth regarding these different types of noises, but for purposes of this guide, there are several types of sounds that can be included in the white noise definition.

Machinery

Bedroom fan, air conditioner, air purifier, ticking mechanical clock.

Nature

Thunderstorms, rain, chirping birds, rainforest sounds, wind, and even traffic (cars).

Ambient noises

Crackling of your fireplace or a campfire, inside an airplane while it’s flying (ever notice how you’re able to sleep so well on an airplane? It’s due to the white noise created as the plane is flying), crowd noise from a sports game.

Brown noise

Scientists have discovered that “brown noise” will also help you fall asleep. Some of the noise generation machines that are designed to help you fall asleep have brown noise capacities. It’s considered to be the lowest frequency that the human ear is able to hear. It sounds like a deep rumble and can be considered as a “warm” sound.

Pink noise

Pink noise is very similar to white noise, but it tends to focus on sounds that are of a lower frequency. The end result being that the sounds you hear are a bit more pleasant to your ear than white noise. It has been said to be able to improve concentration as well.

Different Ways to Have White Noise

There are many ways people can go about having white noise on while they sleep. The cost can range from free up to $60.

Phone Apps

There are many apps for your cell phone on the market that claim to help you get a better night’s sleep. These apps can cost anywhere from free to $10. These apps can produce a wide range of noises from ocean ways to frogs and stream water. The only caveat to these apps is that they suck down battery juice while you sleep, so unless your phone is plugged in, you might wake up restful only to find a dead cell phone battery.

Noise Machines

You can find noise machines in almost any home goods store, or online. They cost anywhere from $9.99 to $60, depending on the model you get. The more expensive ones have better science incorporated into them. They will also allow you to adjust the tone and volume in order to personalize the sound coming out.

If you have a free-standing bedroom fan lying around somewhere, you could repurpose it as a white noise machine. Set it somewhere where you won’t trip over it and put it on “low”. You could also buy an air purifier, which will also purify the air as it helps you go to sleep.

Under the Pillow Machine

Some online stores sell what they refer to as “pillow speaker sets”. On one end is a flat speaker that is inserted into your pillow. It is thin enough so that your head won’t feel it. On the other end is a 3.5mm jack that can plug into your smart phone, or other music player device. You can use this to listen to the apps white noise or you can create your own.

Other Applications

There are a few other applications white noise can be used. For example, if you have a newborn baby, try putting a noise machine in their bedroom, it might help them (and you) get a better night’s sleep.

Recently, many IT companies have begun to experiment with white noise generators in the office. For example, in the IT department, you have several people coding and working on their keyboards. The “clackity clack” of typing can be disturbing for some office workers. So by incorporating a white noise machine, the department finds itself to be more productive and the workers more rested and relaxed at the end of a hard day.

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