White Noise – Sleep Aid or Sleep Hindrance?

Do background sounds help you get better rest? We find out.
Published July 15, 2019

Many of us rely on white noise to help us get to sleep – whether it’s a white noise machine, an app or an electric fan. But is white noise actually helpful? Or does it hurt the quality of our sleep? We asked a couple of sleep experts to set us straight.

“Honestly, the only reason for white noise is to drown out ambient noises that have volumes and pitches that rise and fall,” says Dr. Kent Smith, founding director of Sleep Dallas and president of the American Sleep and Breathing Academy.

Alternating, non-rhythmic sounds are stimulating, he explains, which is why sleeping with the television on leads to interrupted sleep, even if we don’t really notice it.

“White noise essentially ‘whites out’ or erases those sounds that are unfriendly to slumber,” he says.

But it’s not for everyone, he explains. “For some people, the dull hum of a white noise machine or a sound machine is soothing; for others, it could be bothersome. It’s really a personal preference,” Smith says.

In general, Smith recommends reducing as much in-home and external noise as possible before going to sleep.

“This means turning off the TV, radio or other devices, and putting your cellphone on silent or vibrate. The real concern is noise that is intermittent, high-pitched or otherwise disturbing.”

Smith continues, “if there are outside noises over which you have little control – like police sirens or a car door slamming – a white noise machine or fan can help ‘drown out’ the sudden or periodic noises that can pierce the silence and make it difficult to fall or stay asleep.”

What kind of noise is helpful?

“It’s important to bear in mind that sound machines should emit sound as a constant volume and ideally have little audio variation,” says Insomnia Coach founder Martin Reed. “For this reason, nature sounds are not always helpful. A white noise machine (or tuning the radio to static or running a fan) is helpful because it masks environmental noise with a constant sound that is not distracting.

“Interestingly,” Reed adds, “pink noise may be more effective than white noise! Pink noise emphasizes lower frequencies and occurs more frequently in nature. Whereas white noise sounds like radio static, pink noise sounds more like rushing water. So, pink noise is thought to sound more ‘natural’ than white noise. One study suggested that pink noise can improve sleep and memory.”

Mattress Firm’s sleep health expert Dr. Sujay Kansagra adds that it’s important to avoid using music as a type of white noise because “the up-and-down fluctuation of the rhythm can disrupt sleep.”

Check in with yourself to get better sleep

While white noise can help you fall asleep, if you find you are waking up feeling groggy, Kansagra recommends considering these three things.

  • Are you getting enough sleep? “Skimping on sleep is the most common cause of morning grogginess. The average adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep. And if you routinely get less, you will need to pay back your sleep debt before you can feel good in the morning,” he says.
  • Do you have a sleep disorder? “Sleep apnea and restless leg[s] [syndrome] are just two of the many disorders that can prevent you from feeling rested. About half of adults that snore have sleep apnea, a condition in which you have blockages in your breathing while asleep. Talk to your doctor if you suspect you have a sleep disorder.”
  • Cut the caffeine. “Even morning caffeine can linger in your system when it’s time to sleep and prevent a good night’s rest,” Kansagra says. “Try eliminating caffeine completely, and if that’s not possible, avoid it after noon.”