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How White Noise Machines Work and Why are They Effective for Sleeping

White Noise Machines Help You Sleep, white noise, white noise machines, Sleeping, noise machines

If you have trouble sleeping, you can try counting sheep. If that fails, perhaps lighting a relaxing chamomile-scented candle can do the trick. And maybe while you’re at it, you can drink some warm milk as well. However, if these well-known solutions are still unsuccessful in lulling you, what other solutions have you heard about and thought of trying? If meditation and medication are too far-fetched for you, something easy, like listening to a sound is more realistic to do. 

You might be familiar with people listening to white noise machines to fall asleep. These devices can present themselves as phone apps, separate speakers, or as seen here, even as plush toys for babies. The point is, a white noise machine is a device that emits different sound frequencies. It is also this same reason why the sound itself is called white noise. The color white is the combination of all the wavelengths/colors of light. Ergo, white noise is a combination of evenly distributed sound frequencies.

How Do White Noise Machines Work?

Ever wonder how white noise machines work? The concept is very simple; the noise distracts you from other sounds, or better yet, mask them out. External sounds such as traffic noise, neighbors talking, or dogs barking make it harder for you to fall asleep. Not only do these sounds work against a peaceful ambiance, but they also stimulate your brain. 

White Noise Machines Help You Sleep, white noise, white noise machines, Sleeping, noise machines

Even when we are sleeping, our brain still continues to register and process all the external sounds around us. This is an advantageous and essential trait for survival because it can jolt us awake from potential predators or other sources of harm. However, our present lives require getting enough sleep for our 7 am jobs. It is very unlikely that we’ll have to be on the lookout for a potential hungry pack of hyenas until 4 am.

Other than external sounds, how long you can stay asleep depends on other factors too. They involve the time of the night, your age, and the stage of sleep that you’re in (stage 2, non-REM cycle.)  But an interesting discovery here is that researchers found out that people are more likely to wake from a sound that is emotionally relevant. Some examples of “emotionally-relevant” sounds include hearing your own name, or, if you are a mother, hearing your child cry.

What About Pink Noise and Brown Noise?

Besides white noise, there are also other types of sounds that have the name of certain colors. Pink noise is a variation of white noise. It sounds deeper than the latter and has lesser high-pitched hiss. Interestingly, research suggests that pink noise can increase productivity, concentration, and creativity. This is why offices are using it as background noise.

White Noise Machines Help You Sleep, white noise, white noise machines, Sleeping, noise machines

Brown noise, on the other hand, sounds deeper than pink noise. Unlike white noise, it isn’t named after the color brown. In fact, it is named after Robert Brown who discovered the Brownian motion. Brown noise is also more difficult to produce compared to white and pink noise.

What Makes White Noise Effective for Sleeping?

The kinds of sounds that white noise machines emit vary from TV static, the sound of a humidifier, to even lullabies and heartbeat. Of course, the latter two gives a sense of comfort for babies. But what about the other two? You might be thinking if white noise means adding noise to mask other sounds, wouldn’t it be counterintuitive for sleep? 

Well, we had already written the answer when we explained how white noise machines work. White noise, even if it is something as simple as TV static, blends other sounds into the overall background noise. The steady sound frequencies help your brain not to pay attention to other sounds. The fact that the quality of the resulting background noise is featureless makes it less appealing for your mind to latch onto.  

If you think about it, it is easier to understand and listen to a show if only one singer is performing. But if there are around 100 singing voices, it will be difficult to pinpoint who is singing. This example is analogous to when a white noise masks distinct sounds; your brain will not try to process the resulting noise too deeply. As a result, you will have a more relaxed mind, which is ideal for sleeping.

Are There Risks on Using White Noise Machines?

Individuals who are using white noise machines might be unaware that they have tinnitus. Tinnitus is a medical condition in which the patient hears a ringing or humming. Although you can experience brief tinnitus from being exposed to loud noises, overriding this condition can be problematic. The reason for this is because tinnitus can reflect other medical conditions that must be addressed (e.g., anemia, high blood pressure.)  

White noise can also cause developmental issues in children. To help you understand it better, let’s put it this way: the repetitive and senseless white noise is not challenging the brain. Consequently, white noise can halt the brain’s capacity to process the noises of the surroundings. The developing brain of children needs something complex as it prepares them for various stimuli and challenges.

Overall, the positive and negative effects of white noise need further research. The existing studies are limited to conclude whether white noise is going to be completely safe or not. Like with any other devices we use, it is important that we use white noise machines with caution and limitation. 

How to Use White Noise Machines Safely

  • To avoid going over the recommended decibel level, which is at 50, start with the lowest volume.
  • As recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, you should place the white noise machine at least 200 cm or more away from the crib.
  • Use a timer so that the machine automatically turns off when you or your child is asleep.

Every person differs, which is why it is not realistic to say that white noise machines are going to be surely effective for you. However, there is no harm in trying as long as you practice safe usage. After all, who wouldn’t like a good night’s sleep?


More on this topic: Sleep Analysis: Review Sleep ++ 2.0

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