8 Sleep Sounds That Guarantee a Better Night’s Rest
Noise at night can be disruptive—or it can lead to better rest. These are some of the most potent sounds for sleep.
Insomnia can be brutal, making both day and night hours difficult and painful. However, there are some things you can do to help you sleep better and while it may seem counterintuitive at first, one of those might be to have more noise in your room. The trick is to make sure it’s the right noise. For instance, white noise—a mixture of all sound frequencies at once, at the same level of intensity—does a good job of masking other noises that can disrupt your sleep. Like a whirring fan or the hum of an air conditioner, white noise provides an even, steady stream of sound. In a study published in the journal Sleep Medicine, researchers at Brown University Medical School reported patients in a hospital intensive care unit awakened less frequently during the night with white noise present, because it decreased the difference between background noise and the “peak” noises that punctuated the hospital’s noise environment. If white noise isn’t enough to help you drift off, check that you’re not making any of these common sleep mistakes.
It’s no surprise that ocean waves are a popular choice for soothing sleep sounds. For many people, the rhythmic crashing of water onto sand and rock can be quite calming. By creating a mental state of relaxation, contentment, and gentle focus, the wave sound can be deeply relaxing. The sound of the ocean in particular is helpful because it is “the sound of non-threats,” explains Orfeu Buxton, PhD, a professor of behavioral health and director of the Sleep, Health, and Society Collaboratory at Penn State University. “It’s like they’re saying: ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry.'” Sleep isn’t the only reason to try and achieve this deep state of relaxation, science shows that meditation carries some surprising health benefits.
Other water sounds
Whether it’s the light patter of a rain shower or the steady flow of a running stream many types of water sounds can be deeply relaxing, Buxton says. The key is the relatively gentle, gradual variations in the intensity of moving water sounds. This counteracts sudden, abrupt noises—like sirens or the neighbor’s dog—that easily awaken people, even if they’re not very loud, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Sleep sound machines are just one of the sleep products selling out on Amazon.
Sound machines and apps for sleep are filled with noises of the woods and the wilderness and there’s a scientific reason that nature sounds induce sleep, according to a study published in Nature. Scientists at Britain’s University of Sussex had participants listen to recordings of nature sounds and artificial sounds while measuring their brain and nervous system activity. They found nature sounds led to more outward-focused attention in the brain, rather than inward-focused. Inward-focused attention is associated with states of anxiety, stress, and depression—all of which can be antithetical to sleep. Researchers also found participants’ nervous systems moved toward a more relaxed, “rest and digest” mode of activity after listening to recordings from nature.
Employing the sounds of the outdoors to help you sleep is one easy way to connect with nature if you’re living in an environment with a lot of artificial noise. Can’t open the window and hear crickets chirp you to sleep on a summer night? Bring the crickets to you.
Music can lower blood pressure and heart rate, soothe anxiety, and quiet a racing mind—all changes that can benefit sleep. Research by scientists at Hungary’s Semmelweis University found that listening to classical music at bedtime helped improve sleep quality in young adults with sleep problems. Make sure you’re picking soothing music, however. That rock ballad that nursed you through your break up isn’t likely to help you wind down—and neither is the pop song you’re listening to on the treadmill. It doesn’t have to be limited to classical, however. The National Sleep Foundation recommends choosing soothing songs with slow rhythms, between 60 to 80 beats per minute. (Does listening to your favorite music give you goosebumps? Science can explain why.)
You’ve probably heard of white noise, but have do you know about pink noise? You should as it’s getting a lot of attention these days as a potential booster for sleep. Unlike white noise, which gives equal intensity to all frequencies of sound, pink noise creates a balance of high- and low-frequency sounds that mimic many sounds found in nature. People exposed to pink noise during sleep spend more time in deep, slow-wave sleep, according to a study published in The Journal of Theoretical Biology. Looking to improve your memory as well as your sleep? A new study by scientists at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine found that pink noise exposure at night led to better memory recall.
Remember falling asleep as a kid to the sound of adult voices floating in from another room? Or the comfort of being read to while you drift off? For some people, the sounds of human voices remain a soothing sleep sound throughout their lives. There’s even a name for the tingling feeling some people get from certain audio-visual stimuli, including whispering: autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). There’s not a lot of research yet but, according to a study in PeerJ, some people are using ASMR to help them doze off. Guided relaxation and meditation programs designed for sleep can provide soothing voices to help lull you to slumber, and some apps that offer sleep sounds also have voice options. (And if you want to preserve the real thing, it’s not a bad idea to record your parents’ voices now.)
Sounds that relax you
Our response to sound is highly individual, in both our waking and sleeping lives. Like sight and smell, sound is connected to memory, and can stimulate both positive and negative emotions. Our emotional state also affects how we process sound. The experts at the National Sleep Foundation suggest paying close attention to what truly relaxes you. Breaking ocean waves might keep you alert for the next crash of water hitting land, while a steady waterfall soothes you right to sleep. Try out different sounds for a few nights at a time, and observe how your mind and body respond to the noise. If it’s stimulating—raising your heart rate, making you tap your toes, filling you with energy or a strong emotional reaction—keep searching for the soothing sleep sounds that are right for you. In addition, make sure your bedroom is optimized for good sleep using these 6 tips to create a more relaxing sleep experience.
- Orfeu Buxton, PhD, a professor of behavioral health and director of the Sleep, Health, and Society Collaboratory at Penn State University.
- Nature: “Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds.”
- Annals of Internal Medicine: “Sleep Disruption due to Hospital Noises: A Prospective Evaluation.”
- Sleep Medicine: “The influence of white noise on sleep in subjects exposed to ICU noise.”
- Journal of Advanced Nursing: “Music improves sleep quality in students.”
- PeerJ-the Journal of Life and Environmental Science: "Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state."
- National Sleep Foundation: “Can music help you calm down and sleep better.”
- Journal of Theoretical Biology: “Pink noise: effect on complexity synchronization of brain activity and sleep consolidation.”
- Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: “Acoustic Enhancement of Sleep Slow Oscillations and Concomitant Memory Improvement in Older Adults.”
- Journal of Pediatrics: “Effectiveness of a Voice Smoke Alarm Using the Child's Name for Sleeping Children: A Randomized Trial.”