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Does White Noise Actually Help You Sleep? (Research Summary)

by Dale Cudmore | Updated: Jul 17, 2021

Some people claim that white noise makes it easy to sleep well, while others claim that it makes sleep worse.

Who’s right?

While current scientific evidence isn’t fully settled, it looks like they’re both right to some degree. White noise may help in certain situations, but hurt sleep quality in other situations.

I’m going to walk you through that research quickly in this post.

Research on White Noise and Sleep is Mixed

A 2021 systemic review looked at the results of 38 studies on white noise and sleep that met its quality standards (1).

The overall conclusion was that:

The quality of evidence for continuous (white) noise improving sleep was very low, which contradicts its widespread use

The studies that the authors looked at focused on the effects of white noise on various aspects of sleep quality: sleep onset latency (how long to get to sleep), sleep disturbances, sleep duration, and more.

As you can see from the snippet below, there’s a wide variance in the results. Many studies didn’t produce significant results of any kind, while some saw positive results while others saw negative results.

The most important thing to note in this systematic review is that there were significant differences in the study setups.

When it comes to white noise and sleep, factors like duration, volume, and even type of white noise can have a serious impact on the results. The logical conclusion is that white noise may help sleep quality, but only when used in a certain way and in certain situations.

SummaryResearch does not support using white noise for every situation where someone has poor sleep quality. However, there does appear to be some situations where it can be useful, and more research into those areas would be great.

Situations Where White Noise Might Help

While it’s not scientifically rigorous, our best option at this point is to look at individual studies that did produce significant improvements on white noise to try and learn more.

One study examined the effects of continuous white noise in college students (2). Given that white noise can cover up noisy backgrounds, and students often have insomnia, this is a good population to look at.

There were just 4 college students in this study, who were given white noise generators and used them for a month between 60 and 75 decibels (dB). The results were promising:

All students showed a decrease in both sleep latency and night wakings during treatment; however one’s night wakings returned after white noise was

discontinued at a one month follow-up and three of the four returned at a second

follow-up the next semester.

So the results aren’t long lasting and don’t fix the underlying issues of poor sleep quality, as expected, but may provide short-term relief.

The ICU is another good environment to study, as the constant fluctuations in background noise is known to cause sleep problems in patients (3).

A study split patients into 2 groups (4):

  • Control - New patients would be exposed to normal ICU noise
  • Experimental - New patients with white noise

Within 3 days, the average sleep time of the control group declined from 7.08 to 4.75 hours.

On the other hand, the patients in the experimental group with white noise saw no significant changes in total sleep time (6.69 before vs 6.92 hours after).

SummaryWhite noise seems to be most likely to improve sleep quality when used in environments that have significant and fluctuating background noise.

Summary: Should You Use White Noise?

White noise seems to be a treatment worth trying if someone can’t get to sleep or is frequently woken up because of noise from neighbors, housemates, or a nearby street. It works in a similar way to why rain makes people sleep better.

For some people, it’s likely that any noise at all can disrupt sleep, even white noise. Another non-pharmacological alternative to try would be earplugs.

While it’s always better to improve the sleep environment to fix problems like these, a last resort would be to see a doctor who may prescribe sleep medication if sleep issues are severe enough.

References

  1. Noise as a sleep aid: A systematic review
  2. Continuous White Noise to Reduce Sleep Latency and Night Wakings in College Students
  3. The influence of white noise on sleep in subjects exposed to ICU noise
  4. Effect of White Noise on Sleep in Patients Admitted to a Coronary Care

Medical Disclaimer: The information on SnoozeUniversity.com is not intended to be a substitute for physician or other qualified care. We simply aim to inform people struggling with sleep issues about the nature of their condition and/or prescribed treatment.


About the authorDale is the founder of Snooze University and a sleep researcher. I overcame my sleep issues and now I'd like to help you do the same by summarizing the latest sleep studies for you.