White noise machines are moving out of the nursery and into the master bedroom. Once a popular tool for soothing newborns and colicky babies, 5% of adults now report using a white noise machine at night to help get better sleep, according to a survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation.
But do they truly work?
Getting a good night’s sleep doesn’t just happen. Sleep experts see white noise as a small piece of a complex puzzle to achieving quality sleep that also includes factors like your bedtime ritual, what you eat, how you’re feeling, and what you did during the day.
An astounding one-third of adults are not getting enough sleep, according to the CDC, which can lead to cognitive impairment and an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, mental health issues, and obesity. Given the consequences of our sleeplessness, it’s not surprising that more people than ever are looking for solutions—even seemingly counterintuitive ones like extra noise.
If you haven’t heard of white noise, you’ve probably experienced some form of it inadvertently. Think about the sound of your hair dryer or the rhythmic hum of a fan. White noise is a sound that is played at the same frequency over and over again; it is not the same thing as the thunderstorms, chirping birds, and other relaxing ambient sounds compiled on YouTube, which are often confused for white noise.
White noise works by reducing the difference between background noise and jarring sounds (called arousals) like a screeching car. Think of it like keeping a nightlight on while you sleep, explains Raj Dasgupta, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine and sleep expert at Keck Medicine of USC. If you turn on a light in a pitch black room, you’ll be more startled than if your room is lit by a softer night light. A growling motorcycle or the slam of a door can not only jar you awake, but can shift you to a lighter stage of sleep. “The more arousals, the more signs of sleep deprivation [in an individual]," says Dasgupta, because those distractions prevent you from going into to deeper, more restorative stages of sleep (like REM).
While white noise can block out sound, its direct relationship to sleep is still unknown. Most studies of white noise to-date have focused on our concentration and learning during waking hours. “There’s limited science” to support the relationship between white noise and better sleep, says Dasgupta. Nonetheless, someone suffering from insomnia who is easily woken by jarring sounds may find white noise a useful addition to their other treatments, but not necessarily the cure. In other words, white noise is worth using if it makes you feel better—but don’t use it as a Band-Aid for a bigger problem.
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“You want to make sure you’re not missing something else you have to address,” says Dasgupta. Sleep apnea, insomnia, and other sleep disorders could be underlying problems causing you to waken and should be addressed.
If white noise sounds like it could be right for you, here are 3 top-rated machines worth trying:
MARPAC Dohm-DS Dual Speed Electro-Mechanical White Noise Machine
Recommended for doctor’s offices because of the soothing, repetitive sound, this model has two speeds of “rushing air” and doesn’t require a battery.
Buy now: $79, amazon.com
Big Red Rooster BRRC107 Sound Machine
Here's an affordable, travel-sized model that offers five soothing ambient sounds like rain and ocean in addition to white noise.
Buy now: $26, amazon.com
LectroFan Micro Wireless Sleep Sound Machine and Bluetooth Speaker
Streamline your bedroom electronics by getting four white noise settings, five fan sounds, and a Bluetooth speaker setting in this compact machine.
Buy now: $42, amazon.com
This article originally appeared on Prevention US.