Can't Sleep Without Background Noise? Sleep MD Has 7 Reasons

You probably can’t sleep without background noise as it masks disruptive noises, or you have anxiety, a physiological dependence on it, or poor sleep hygiene.
Published
2024-03-07
13 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
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Can't Sleep Without Background Noise? Why & How to Sleep Without

  • You may not be able to sleep without background noise because of other disturbing noises that would make it harder to sleep if you didn’t drown them out, or because you have anxiety when you sleep in silence, a psychological dependence on sleeping with noise, or poor sleep hygiene. 
  • Sleep without background noise by reducing disturbing noises, wearing earplugs, and managing your anxiety. 
  • The RISE app can help you fall asleep faster and wake up less often — whether you listen to background noise or not — by helping you improve your sleep hygiene and get in sync with your body clock.

A whirring ceiling fan, a white noise machine, a podcast, or the TV. Whatever it is, some of us just can’t sleep without background noise. 

But did you know noise at night can affect your sleep, energy levels, and health? The trick is using background noise wisely. 

Below, we’ll explain why you can’t sleep without background noise, how to sleep in silence, and how to sleep safely with noise. Plus, we’ll share how the RISE app can help you get a better night’s sleep — whatever you’re listening to.

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

“Background noise can mask noises like traffic or provide a distraction from anxious thoughts, both of which can keep you up,” says Rise Science sleep advisor and medical reviewer, Dr. Chester Wu, a double board certified doctor in psychiatry and sleep medicine.

“There’s not enough evidence to say whether it’s safe or not to sleep with background noise, but if you need it, try using a timer, so you don’t listen to noise all night.”

Why Can’t I Sleep Without Background Noise? 

You may not be able to sleep without background noise because of disturbing noises (like traffic or neighbors) that could be keeping or waking you up, anxiety keeping you up when you try to sleep in silence, or you have psychological dependence on it. You may also sleep better with background noise due to the placebo effect helping you sleep better with noise, not being aware that you’re sleeping fine without it, attributing sleep improvements to background noise, or other sleep problems keeping you awake.  

Those are a lot of reasons, so here’s what we mean: 

  • Consistent background noise is masking disturbing noises: Without a white noise machine or fan on, you might be able to hear more sleep-disturbing noises — known as peak noises — like traffic, noisy neighbors, or your partner’s snoring. Listening to background noise in this way is known as auditory masking, and it can improve the sleep you would have otherwise gotten. 
  • You’re stressed or anxious: Stress and anxiety may feel worse when you’re lying awake in silence. There’s nothing to distract you from ruminating (endless worrying). There’s also a theory that the fear of being alone could make it hard to sleep without background noise, but there’s not much research into that. When you sleep with background noise, especially something like the TV or a podcast, you might find it easier to relax and drift off. RISE users say stress and anxiety are their biggest hurdles to a good night’s sleep, so this could be a key factor contributing to sleep problems. 
  • You’re psychologically dependent on it: If you put on some background noise every night before bed (maybe it’s something you’ve done since childhood), you might have developed a psychological dependence on it. When you try to sleep in silence, you might get anxious about not being able to sleep, and this anxiety keeps you up. You might also try to force and control sleep, known as sleep effort, and this can exacerbate or perpetuate insomnia. Putting on background noise may act as a cue, signaling to your brain that it’s time to sleep, without that cue, you might struggle to drift off as easily. 
  • The placebo effect: Our minds are powerful things. Background noise may help you sleep better simply because you believe it will. 
  • You’re sleeping better than you think: Our minds may be powerful, but they can’t always be trusted. You may feel like you get poor sleep without background noise, but that might not be true. You may have paradoxical insomnia, or sleep-state misconception, which is when you feel like your sleep problems are worse than they really are. 
  • False attribution: You might drift off faster with music on, but it’s really down to the relaxing bedtime routine you do while listening to it. Or you might struggle to sleep when your sound machine breaks, but it’s because you stay up late on TikTok instead of doing your usual journaling with nature sounds.
  • Something else is causing sleep problems: Background noise — or the lack of it — may have nothing to do with your sleep problems. Poor sleep hygiene, being out of sync with your circadian rhythm (your body clock), medical conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes, or sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea could be causing sleep loss. Background noise may just be masking a problem, or not making much of a difference at all. 

We’ve covered other reasons it can take you a long time to fall asleep here.

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Why Can’t I Sleep in Silence?

You may not be able to sleep in silence because of stress or anxiety. In total silence, there’s nothing to distract you from your thoughts and you may find yourself going over tomorrow’s to-do list or replaying an argument with your spouse. 

Try managing anxiety with breathing exercises, journaling, a brain dump (writing down everything you’re worried about or have to do the next day), and doing a relaxing bedtime routine to help you feel calm before you get into bed. 

We’ve covered what to do when you’re too stressed to sleep here.

How to Sleep Without Background Noise?

Sleep without background noise by reducing disturbing noises, wearing ear plugs, managing anxiety, improving your sleep hygiene, syncing up with your circadian rhythm, doing a relaxing bedtime routine, and speaking to a doctor. 

Here’s more on how to start sleeping in silence — or as quiet as you can make it: 

  • Reduce disturbing noises: If you usually use background noise to drown out a noisy environment, do what you can to reduce that disturbing noise. That could mean asking your partner to look into snoring treatments, investing in heavy curtains or better windows to block outside noise, or moving your bedroom to a quieter room in the house. 
  • Wear earplugs: A quicker and cheaper fix is to wear earplugs. Look for earplugs rated to 32 decibels. These can block disruptive noise, but still allow you to hear your alarm. We recommend these
  • Make gradual changes: Try gradually lowering the volume of your background noise each night instead of cutting it out abruptly. Make the switch to more calming background noises, like a relaxing playlist or nature sounds, over a stimulating TV drama. You can also play noises on a timer as you fall asleep, instead of all night long. 
  • Manage anxiety: If you feel uncomfortable in complete silence or find you need background noise to relax, try anxiety management techniques such as journaling, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or doing a brain dump. Research shows writing down tomorrow’s to-do list can help you fall asleep faster compared to writing down tasks you’ve already completed. Write your brain dump in RISE to get a reminder the next day of everything you wrote down. And RISE can guide you through breathing and relaxation exercises. We’ve covered more on how to sleep with anxiety here.
  • Do a relaxing bedtime routine: This is helpful for anyone, anxiety or not. A relaxing bedtime routine can ensure you crawl into bed calm and ready for sleep. Background noise — like listening to relaxing music or an episode of your favorite podcast — can be a part of your routine. You could listen as you get ready for bed and then switch it off when you’re ready to sleep. Just make sure what you’re listening to doesn’t end on a cliffhanger that revs you up or makes you listen long past bedtime.
  • Improve your sleep hygiene: Better sleep hygiene can help you fall asleep faster and wake up less often, so you don’t need to rely on background noise to drift off. Follow RISE’s 20+ sleep hygiene reminders, including when to have your final coffee, when to get and avoid bright light, and when to stop drinking alcohol before bed
  • Get in sync with your circadian rhythm: RISE can predict your circadian rhythm each day and show you when your body naturally wants to wind down and sleep. Sync up with these times to an easier time drifting off in silence.
  • Speak to a doctor: A healthcare professional can test you for sleep disorders and physical and mental health conditions that could be making it hard to sleep. They can recommend the best treatments to help, so you’re solving the root cause of your sleep problems. 
  • Don’t panic — it may not be that bad for you: Research is mixed on whether sleeping with background noise is bad for you. While silence is usually recommended, a soothing low-volume background noise may not be doing too much harm. But worrying about it may do more damage as this worry can start keeping you up.
RISE app screenshot showing sleep hygiene habit reminders
The RISE app tells you when to do 20+ good sleep habits.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications here

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What’s the Best Noise to Sleep With? 

The best noise to sleep with may be silence, or as close as you can get to it. If you can’t sleep in silence, the second best noise to sleep with would be something calming and a sound that can mask disruptive noises. Try white noise, nature sounds, or relaxing music. 

“There’s some promising research into sounds like white noise, pink noise, and music for sleep, but there’s not enough evidence to recommend anything wholeheartedly,” says Dr. Wu. “My advice is to aim for silence and experiment with sleep sounds if silence isn’t possible for you.”

RISE has sleep sounds you can play on a timer including:

  • White noise in the form of a fan or propeller plane 
  • Pink noise in the form of the ocean or rainfall 
  • Brown noise in the form of rain and thunder 
RISE app screenshot showing different background noises
Listen to soothing background noise on the RISE app

Expert tip: It’s unclear whether sleeping with sound playing all night long is damaging to your health. So, if you’re using background noise to fall asleep, consider playing it on a timer and listening to it on as low a volume as possible — noises above 47 decibels may disturb sleep.

Opt for the least disruptive background noise possible — that means ambient music over heavy metal, or white noise machine over an air conditioner or leaving the TV playing (the cold or light could cause trouble sleeping). 

We’ve covered the best sounds for sleep here.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can go right to their relaxation audio guide homepage and get started here.

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Is it Better to Sleep in Silence or With Noise?

It may be better to sleep in silence than with noise. Traffic and ICU noise have been shown to be disruptive to sleep, but it’s not clear whether relaxing sounds would have the same effect. 

Some people may find it hard to sleep without noise — whether that’s due to anxiety or a noisy environment — so sleeping with background noise allows them to get more sleep than they would otherwise. 

For example, a 2021 study found participants in noisy New York City fell asleep faster and woke up less often during the night when they slept with a white noise machine. 

In general, though, it’s recommended you keep your sleep environment below 35 decibels, which is about the sound of a whisper. Experts usually recommend silence. 

More studies are needed, but research shows long-term exposure to noise pollution may lead to higher blood pressure and heart attacks. Noise in intensive care units — so therefore, perhaps noisy neighborhoods or apartment buildings — can lead to anxiety and poorer sleep quality. And it’s thought our ears may need downtime to clear out metabolic waste and recover from the day. 

There isn’t a solid answer either way. A 2021 systematic review looked at 38 studies on white noise and sleep and concluded: “Conventional wisdom contends that continuous noise, such as so-called “white noise machines”, may improve sleep. After systematically reviewing published scientific literature, we conclude that the quality of evidence supporting this assertion is very low.” 

And a 2022 systematic review looking at white noise, pink noise, and music for sleep  concluded, “although there was no strong evidence to support use of auditory stimulation, none of the studies reported any adverse effects with short-term application of auditory stimulation during sleep.” 

So, as short-term listening may be okay, it may be best to only use noise when needed to get the best sleep — such as when trying to sleep on a noisy plane or when a neighbor’s throwing a party.

Studies on noise and sleep are often small, short in duration, use self-reported data (which can be inaccurate), or are on people in hospital. So more research is needed.

We’ve covered more on whether white noise can help you sleep here.

Expert tip: Lower your sleep debt for more energy. This is the amount of sleep you owe your body. The more sleep debt you have, the worse you’re going to feel and perform. 

Check RISE to see how much sleep debt you have and whether listening to background noise or sleeping in silence makes a difference. 

The RISE app calculates your daily sleep debt.

Sleep debt is measured against how much sleep you genetically need — known as your sleep need. Don’t just assume this is eight hours! Among 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and up, sleep needs ranged from five hours to 11 hours 30 minutes. 

Use RISE to find out how much sleep you need exactly. 

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need
RISE users' sleep needs.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep need here and view their sleep debt here.

Sleep Soundly — Whichever Sound You Choose 

If you can’t sleep without background noise, it may be because of disturbing environmental noises, anxiety, a psychological dependence, or another issue — like poor sleep hygiene or being out of sync with your circadian rhythm. 

Listen to better noises for sleep with RISE’s selection of soothing sounds you can play on a timer. 

RISE can also help you get better sleep — whether you decide to break the background noise habit or not. The app guides you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits and helps you sync up with your circadian rhythm, so you have an easier time falling asleep, whatever’s playing. 

Small sleep hygiene changes can make a big difference:

“I’ve found success with this by just adjusting my sleep habits based on what this app is telling me, and there’s been a noticeable difference.” Read the review.

And it doesn’t take long — 80% of RISE users get better sleep within five days.

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