Despite these technical specifications, the term ‘white noise’ is generally used to describe any soothing natural or ambient sound that is used to drown out distracting background noises, such as vehicles on the road or noises from elsewhere in the house. This allows people to focus less on exterior sounds and fall asleep more quickly.
Three common examples of white noise include:
- Natural sounds, such as waves, rain, wind, and gentle animal noises (such as crickets or birds)
- Ambient sounds, which mimic common noises like burning fires, crowds of people, or light traffic
- Machinery, such as air fans and other devices that emit light sounds (like dishwashers or washing machines)
White Noise Machines: Common Characteristics and Functions
In addition to aiding adults, most white noise machines are also designed for babies, infants, and young children. Some models feature softer, more soothing sounds as well as lullaby melodies, that specifically cater to young ears. White noise machines are also a popular travel accessory, and some models are designed for mobility with more compact sizes and dual-voltage capabilities.
Although specs vary by brand and model, most standard white noise machines sold today are designed for the following:
- Volume: White noise machines always have adjustable volume settings.
- Size: White noise machines are usually compact, and do not measure more than 10W” x 10L” x 10H”.
- Sound options: In addition to traditional white noise, some white noise machines are equipped with multiple sound options, including natural and ambient sounds.
- Looping: For less distraction, white noise machines often mask their sound loops to create a continuous listening experience.
- Timer: Users may be able to program their white noise machine to stop producing sounds after a certain amount of time has passed.
- Headphone accessibility: Some white noise machines feature built-in headphone jacks for more private listening.
- Alarm: Select white noise machines come equipped with a programmable alarm.
- Power: Some white noise machines operate using batteries, while others require an electrical outlet. Modern designs may also be powered using USB cords, as well.
With few exceptions, white noise machines cost $100 or less when purchased from the original manufacturer or authorized retailers. Some white noise machines come with warranties that cover up to five years, while others do not come with any warranty coverage.
Who is a White Noise Machine Best For?
People Who Travel Often
White noise machines are a great solution for dealing with noise pollution while on the road. In fact, one study found that air traffic noise contributes to increased hypertension and even learning difficulties in children.
If you travel often on planes and trains, or stay in noisy hotels, going beyond the earplugs can really help. You have plenty of options, too. Most noise machines have a headphone jack that you can plug in anywhere.
People with Noisy Sleep Spaces
Having a white noise machine can be highly beneficial to anyone who lives in noisy sleep spaces. Traffic, construction noises, loud housemates or neighbors, partners who snore — these problems can all contribute to a lousy night’s sleep. Sleeping in a developing area only increases the risk of this, and cities often don’t take enough action with noise ordinances to make a big difference.
Take, for example, how the New York Times used a noise meter to measure noise levels in buildings across the city. Many had dangerous decibel levels, which can contribute to hypertension, stress, and heart disease. This problem may be especially acute in areas with lots of urban development. White noise machines are a great way to mitigate this problem and potentially even help your mental and physical health.
Newborns, Infants and Toddlers
Parents may find success with using white noise machines for their children. For starters, this likely mimics the ambient noise in utero — an automatic, subconscious soother. Parents with autistic children will also find relief in white noise machines. Many children with autism report sleep problems, whether experiencing early morning waking, hyperarousal, short-duration sleeping, or excessive daytime sleepiness.
Of course, you don’t want to use too much of a good thing: some studies have shown that excessive white noise has its drawbacks. For example, overexposure to white noise has shown delayed brain development in baby rats. Rat pups who experienced this developed auditory responses at later benchmarks than their counterparts who weren’t exposed to the same level of white noise.
Another study found that such exposure may be responsible for far-reaching sensory and behavioral changes in rats — that is, excessive white noise may actually inhibit the brain’s ability to perceive the geographic location of sound. Researchers found that early and continuous overexposure to white noise may have adverse effects on brain maturation in mammals, resulting in difficulty with spatial awareness and sensitivity.
Long story short: there’s nothing wrong with a little white noise, but too much of it has the potential to cause damage.
People with ADHD
People with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can also reap the benefits from white noise machines. As many as 50% of children with ADHD suffer from sleep problems, including experiencing higher levels of daytime sleepiness and suffering from sleep-disordered breathing.
ADHD is often associated with a wide array of sleep disorders even for adults, including restless leg syndrome, difficulty falling asleep at night, anxiety around bedtime, waking during the night, and even delayed sleep-phase disorder. White noise machines help remove auditory distractions from around the room, allowing people with ADHD to focus on getting a deeper night of sleep.
People with Tinnitus
White noise machines, soft music, and other soothing sounds also help distract some people from their Tinnitus as they’re trying to sleep. Tinnitus affects between 15-20% of the population, often showing up due to an ear injury, system disorder, or age-related hearing loss. Tinnitus may manifest itself as a noise similar to ringing, roaring, clicking, hissing, or buzzing.
Professional counselors may combine white noise machines with other strategies in sound therapy to relieve the symptoms of tinnitus, such as using wearable and non-wearable sound therapy devices, going through cognitive behavioral therapy, or learning beneficial sleep hygiene practices.
How to Use a White Noise Machine
Where to Put Your White Noise Machine
Many people decide to put their white noise machine right beside their bed for maximum effect. However, if you’re trying to drown out a noise from a specific source, it’s probably best to place the machine between you and the source of the noise.
For example, if there’s a noisy neighbor you can hear from another room, place it by your door. Or if you’re trying to avoid the sound of traffic, place the white noise machine in between your bed and your window.
If this isn’t as effective as you’d hoped, experiment with different locations and see how you rest that night. By playing around with different spots, you can discover the most effective placing to help you sleep well at night. Make sure that nothing is covering the white noise machine and that cords are free from somewhere you could easily trip.
Finding the Right Sound Setting
Finding the right sound setting on a white noise machine may also be accomplished through trial and error. Most white noise machines operate between 40-70 decibels. Forty decibels is comparable to bird calls or the sound of a library. Fifty to 60 decibels are like a conversation at home, background music, or an air conditioning unit from 100 feet away. Once your white noise machine hits 70 decibels, it’s similar to living room music or a vacuum cleaner.
It’s important to note that babies and children should probably have a white noise machine set lower to protect their potentially sensitive developing hearing — about 40-50 decibels. Adults can start at that level and increase it as needed. Make sure to place the machine at least three feet away from your head, both for optimal results and to prevent the noise machine from potentially damaging your hearing.
Considerations for White Noise Machine Shoppers
When shopping for a new white noise machine and comparing different brands and models, here are a few important factors to keep in mind:
- Will adults or children primarily use the machine?
- Will the machine be exclusively used in the owner’s home, or will it also be used as a travel accessory?
- How large is the machine, and will it fit where the owner plans to install it?
- Is the machine too large for the owner’s current travel bags or luggage?
- How many volume settings does the machine have?
- Does the machine only feature white noise, or are there other sounds (such as natural, machine, and/or ambient sounds)? If the latter, how many total sounds are featured?
- Does the machine mask sound loops, or are there brief periods of static or silence between the end of one loop and the beginning of the next?
- Does the machine feature a programmable timer that controls when the noise stops?
- Does the machine come with a built-in alarm clock?
- Does the machine have a headphone jack?
- Does the machine run on batteries, AC, or USB?
- How much does the machine cost?
- Is warranty coverage included with the machine?
Alternatives to White Noise Machines
For sleepers who prefer not to use or invest in a white noise machine, effective methods of blocking outside noise include the following:
Fans: The whirring blades of conventional fans produce ambient white noise that can effectively drown out other sounds. They also improve air circulation in the bedroom, and can create a cooler sleeping space during warmer times of the year.
Earplugs: Some people prefer to sleep with earplugs, which are normally made from softer materials like foam or silicone. Earplugs may mold to the contours of the user’s inner ear, or they may maintain a constant shape; in either case, they are usually designed to fit all ear canal sizes. Some earplugs are reusable, while others are designed for one-time use.
Most earplugs are sold in bulk, and typically cost less than $30 for a pack of 200 or less. However, it’s important to note that earplugs are associated with certain health risks, namely earwax buildup, which can lead to conditions like hearing loss, tinnitus, and earwax discharge.
White noise apps: Downloading a white noise app onto a smartphone, tablet, or other portable electronic device may be a cheaper alternative to purchasing a white noise machine. White noise apps may also allow users to play music from their personal library or streaming services while the white noise sounds play.
The table below lists five of the most popular white noise apps that are currently available on iTunes.