Noise can be incredibly annoying for anyone who is trying to sleep, but especially for shift workers, who need to sleep during the day. Traffic, doors slamming, phones, building work, doorbells, young children... It can feel relentless.
Unsurprisingly, research has found that noise can fragment sleep, making you wake up or shift into lighter, less restorative sleep (Basner & McGuire 2018). While many people will be able to get used to some background noise, there is a lot of individual variability. Disturbance from infrequent sounds such as aircraft can still disrupt sleep after months or years of exposure (Smith 2022).
If you live in a noisy environment, a first step could be to soundproof your room, or house, as much as possible. This might include cavity wall insulation, secondary glazing on the windows, shutters, sound-dampening curtains or sound-dampening panels on the ceiling.
However, if the source of noise is internal - such as a snoring partner - you’ll need a different approach! In an ideal world, try to address the source of noise. You can read more about snoring here.
In general, constant sounds are less likely to interfere with sleep than loud, sudden sounds, which is the reason alarm clocks are loud and abrupt. Unpredictable, unfamiliar sounds can throw the brain into fight or flight mode, and wake you up, heart racing..
Even quiet sounds can disturb your sleep if you’re sensitised to them. Sleeping mothers will wake up to their own baby’s cry before they will wake in response to someone else’s. In stage 2 sleep, where we spend half of our sleep time, simply the whisper of your name can cause characteristic changes in brain activity.
So what can you do if you want to sleep during the day, and noise is getting in the way?
1. Can ear plugs help with noise when we sleep?
Re-usable ear plugs are an inexpensive solution to reduce noise. People often complain that they are uncomfortable when they first try them. I recommend that you look for brands which offer a money back guarantee, and experiment with different options, until you find some which are a good fit for you.
There is some evidence that using an eye mask and ear plugs can help with sleep quality for patients trying to sleep in a noisy intensive care environment (Obanor 2021 ).
When I met a snorer, it took me several failed attempts and several months to get used to wearing ear plugs, but I’m glad I stuck with it because it made a massive difference to my sleep.
2. What is white noise, and does it help with sleep?
An alternative coping strategy is to play white noise in the background.
True white noise consists of every frequency of sound that the ear can hear, played at random, at a constant amplitude or intensity. This effectively provides a blanket of sound which can mask other noises. It sounds like a ‘shhh’ static noise.
You can play white noise using apps on your phone or using a specially designed white noise machine.
White noise is often championed as a strategy to help soothe babies to sleep, but interestingly there is relatively little academic research to support this. A study involving 2 groups of 20 babies found that 16 (80%) babies fell asleep within 5 min in response to white noise, while only 5 (25%) in the control group fell asleep (Spencer 1990).
More recently, 10 adults living in a noisy environment in New York were given white noise machines for a week. According to sleep diaries and a wearable tracker, on average they fell asleep faster and had less time awake during the night when using white noise ( Ebben 2021).
However, a recent systematic review combining the results of many different studies found only low quality evidence supporting the use of white noise as a sleep aid ( Reidy 2021). This suggests that while white noise may help some people, it is not as effective for helping to improve sleep quality as evidence-based strategies such as cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia.
If you find white noise irritating, or you don’t want to buy an expensive machine, you could also consider the gentle hum of a fan, which can do a similar job.
3. What is pink noise, and does it help with sleep?
An alternative to white noise is pink noise, also called 1/f noise, which is similar but with fewer high pitched sounds and more emphasis on the lower frequency sounds. Pink noise can be softer, deeper and more soothing than white noise. This may be more helpful for people suffering from tinnitus.
One experiment on seven healthy adult participants confirmed that they fell asleep 2.2 min faster with pink noise.. but is that a meaningful improvement? ( Garcia-Molino 2020).
Other alternatives include brown noise, also called red noise, which has a higher intensity at lower frequencies that white and pink noise, and sounds like a dull roar. There is a shortage of evidence about how useful this is for sleep.
4. Do nature sounds, such as rain or waves, help with sleep?
In addition to white noise, many sound machines come with a range of different background noises, such as rainfall, birdsong or gently breaking waves. These will be less effective at masking sounds, but are designed to help you relax.
If you have an emotional connection with a particular sound, it could help you to visualise a positive image in your mind, which has been found to help some people fall asleep.
Sounds of nature have been found to improve self-reported relaxation, as well as to reduce muscle tension and heart rate ( Ratcliffe 2021).
If they are effective at inducing relaxation, it is plausible that nature sounds may help with falling asleep. One recent pilot study randomised working adults who self-reported poor sleep to an app where they listened to either 1. nature sounds and ambient music, or 2. sleep stories, or to 3. a waitlist control group, for four weeks. Both groups listening to the audio tracks on an app rated their sleep more positively than the waitlist control group, and reported an average of 35 minutes of extra sleep per night ( Economides 2023).
Many people listen to audiobooks to help them fall asleep. Anecdotally, these can help people to avoid unwelcome thoughts, and help them to relax, but there is still very little research looking at the use of audiobooks.
5. Can relaxing music help with sleep?
Some research has found that listening to music can reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate and help us to switch off the fight or flight stress response ( Joon & Baek 2022). To promote sleep, slow, repetitive rhythms are thought to create a sense of safety and security that can prepare the brain for sleep.
When researchers combined the results of 13 studies looking at whether listening to music helped patients with insomnia, they concluded that music ‘may be effective for improving sleep quality’ ( Jespersen 2022). In other words, the results weren’t so compelling that they could be certain, but on the balance of evidence, most research finds a benefit, and no studies reported any harms associated with listening to music.
Should we use sounds to help us to fall asleep?
In terms of the scientific evidence, a review which summarised the results from 38 different studies found very little evidence that continuous noise of any kind could improve sleep ( Riedy 2021). This is consistent with the idea that, biologically, we don’t need a particular sound to sleep, BUT researchers didn’t specifically look at sleepers in a noisy environment.
One potential drawback of listening to sounds before bed is that you become conditioned to a particular noise, so that it becomes harder to sleep if that noise is taken away.
For example, if you always use a machine to play rainfall to soothe you to sleep, you may find you need to take it with you to get a good night’s sleep on holiday. If this particular sound annoys your partner, it could be counterproductive!
Researchers also warn that the ears and our auditory processing system in the brain are likely to need a period of recovery, just like any other part of the body. It is therefore probably a good idea to use a sleep timer, so that the noise goes off after 15 to 30 minutes, rather than staying on throughout the night.