(Just to be clear, white noise is such a stalwart thanks in large part to its simplicity. It most closely sounds like a fan, and is not to be confused with other common noises to sleep to, like jungle sounds, rain sounds, bird sounds, or ocean sounds. And that makes sense to me, because I have never understood what's so soothing about a toucan shrieking "CA-CAW, CA-CAW." But I digress.)
If you're thinking of buying a white noise sleep machine or dozing off to some happy static on YouTube, rest assured the practice is sleep-expert vetted. To drive that point home, check out four tips a sleep pro wants you to know about white noise before you actually tune in.
1. The reason white noise works is because it creates a sonic wall
"White noise is a consistent noise that is completely even across all frequencies that one can hear," says clinical psychologist and author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia, Shelby Harris, PsyD. "When you wake up at night from a noise, it usually isn’t the actual noise itself that awakens you, it's actually the change in sound that wakes you up. Think about falling asleep during a television show—a lot of people wake up when the commercials come on because of the different noises, sounds and volume."
"White noise is a consistent noise that is completely even across all frequencies. When you wake up at night from a noise, it usually isn’t the actual noise itself that awakens you, it's actually the change in sound." —clinical psychologist Shelby Harris, PsyD
The prime reason you're able to drift off while listening to white noise is because it's all on the same level, not allowing for sound shifts that can interrupt your slumber. In function, it's a barrier against honking cars or your bedmate blasting Black Mirror from their laptop. It does not, unfortunately, protect you against your cat clawing your face at 3 a.m....but it will, for better or for worse, block out their needy meows.
"In essence, white noise creates a masking effect that drowns out the inconsistencies and creates a stable, same noise that’s easy to sleep to," Dr. Harris says.
2. There are several ways to get your white noise on
These days, white noise is nothing if not extremely accessible. Thanks for that, YouTube!
"I use a white noise machine whenever I stay at a hotel—many hotels have them if you ask," Dr. Harris says. "And I’ve been known to travel with one. I also have white noise apps on my phone."
3. White noise sleep machines and apps might be habit-forming
Dr. Harris grew accustomed to using a white noise machine while living in New York City because, well, of course. But she says that even upon leaving for a quieter place to live, her white noise habit became a hard one to kick.
"Once my husband and I moved to the suburbs and bought a house in a very quiet, beautiful neighborhood, I found it extremely hard to sleep at first," Dr. Harris says. "I had trained myself to sleep with a white noise machine, and I had to get used to sleeping without one. That’s the biggest downside to using it; you may become reliant on it."
But, habits are malleable—so if this happens to you, you can use it as an opportunity to find a new one. Once you've quelled your anxiety about feeling reliant on white noise for sleep if you contend you no longer need it, you can wean yourself off (perhaps in favor of a new option).
4. Pink noise is also thing
"Pink noise is white noise’s cousin, and there is a little data showing that pink noise during sleep can enhance memory and deep sleep," Dr. Harris says. In fact, one 2013 study showed that subjects stayed in deep sleep longer compared to subjects who listened to no noise.
Pink noise is similar to white noise in that it's still randomized noise, but has more amplification of the lower tones and mimics nature sounds. Consider it a more soothing option if you're focused on getting better sleep versus just falling asleep...or if you just want to snooze with all the colors of the wind.
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