White noise machines cover up unexpected sounds that might otherwise wake us.
Science says that our brains evolved in a world where unexpected noises meant danger. University of Washington researchers recently discovered that mammals have neurons devoted to detecting unusual sounds. Without those neurons, the prehistoric ancestor that spawned us all would have been just another late-night snack for some dinosaur.
Being eaten remains an experience to avoid, but poor sleep is a more common health risk for modern humans. Scientific studies have shown that white noise can promote sleep among babies, ICU patients, and people in cardiac care units. If unusual sounds are waking you, white noise sound machine can mask them.
What Is White Noise?
Ask 99 people what white noise is, and you’ll probably get 99 different answers. If one of those people is a physicist or a statistician, you’ll get a very specific answer having to do with something called spectral density.
For other people, white noise describes the buzzing/hissing sound you hear when a TV station goes out, or when you find a dead place on the radio dial. You can buy machines that play that sound and that sound only.
More and more, white noise is becoming a category of sound — used to describe any repetitive sound that helps to block out unwanted sound. To an acoustical engineer, the sound of ocean waves is definitely not “white noise,” but maybe it is to you. That’s okay. In lots of white noise machines and apps, “white noise” is just one of a menu of options that includes nature sounds.
Nature sounds such as ocean waves, chirping crickets, and rainstorms soothe many people to sleep, which makes sense. These are normal sounds that humans have slept through for thousands of years. If we were hard-wired to wake up every time it rained, we’d all have to live in the Atacama Desert.
Best White Noise Machines
The top white noise machines range between $30 and $100. The price depends on your preferred feature set.
Aurola Sleep Sound Machine
The simple interface, low price, and small size makes this machine a good starting point for new parents and travelers. Seven preloaded sounds — five nature sounds, plus “lullaby” and “white noise” — can be set to stop after a certain time, or play all night.
Marpac Dohm Classic White Noise Sound Machine
The machine that launched the white noise revolution, the Marpac Dohm is a marvel of mechanical engineering. A motor and dual-speed fan combine to create a whooshing, white noise sound. Back when wax records were the smallest recorded music format available, the Dohm made white noise a possibility. If you want to keep it simple, consider the Dohm Classic.
Sound+Sleep High Fidelity Sleep Sound Machine
Sound+Sleep calls their high-end product a “sound machine.” They tout that the sounds are all recorded from nature, then remastered for optimal sound on high-fidelity speakers. More traditional fan-style white noise options are also available. In all, you’ll have 64 sounds to choose from in 16 different categories.
Home Speakers / Assistants Can Double as White Noise Machines
As long as you aren’t worried they’ll hear the secrets that you keep when you’re talking in your sleep, you can put home speakers into service as sleep whisperers. Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Apple Home Pod all come with “white noise” options. If you already have one of these models, it’s the ultimate budget-friendly option.
Does Alexa Play White Noise?
Yes! The two best ways are through your Amazon Prime Music account, or with Alexa Skills. You can create a playlist of soothing sounds or dream-inducing music in your Amazon Prime Music account, and play it through Alexa. Or, search Alexa Skills. Some helpful folks have created skills specifically for playing white noise and nature sounds.
Does Google Home Play White Noise?
Yes! Google Home comes with some built-in soothing sounds, including “white noise” and “ocean.” You can also set up playlists on Google Play Music packed with soothing music and sounds.
Does Apple Home Pod Play White Noise?
Yes! Apple Home Pod comes with some built-in soothing sounds like “rainstorm” and “white noise”. Ask Siri for the sound of your choice. You can also set up playlists on iTunes to lull you toward dreamland.
The Dangers of White Noise
White noise and nature sounds pose the same health risks as other types of noise — the louder they are, the more risk there is. According to the Occupational Health & Safety Administration, employers aren’t permitted to expose employees to noise louder than 85 decibels for eight hours or more. That’s about the volume of a lawnmower. If your white noise machine is louder than that, you could be hurting your ears in the effort to help your sleep.
Babies are a unique case. Their little ears and eardrums are still developing, and excessive noise could stunt that development. Take care with any manufactured sound you play for them. Then again, if they are screaming all night, that’s not good for their ears either. The best course of action if your child struggles to sleep is to talk it over with your pediatrician.
Pacify Your Prehistoric Neurons
Complete quiet is impossible in the modern world. Most of us have refrigerators running, heating/cooling units adjusting, and cars passing in the distance. Ideally, your bedroom walls and windows will block out everything but the usual sounds. If not, white noise provides a layer of predictable sound your prehistoric mammalian neurons can accept.
If it turns out that a white noise sound machine still doesn’t help you sleep, maybe your mattress, sheets, or pillows are the problem. We’ve got comfort tech backed by science that can help.