Avoiding Noise at Night: Noise-Canceling Methods for Better Sleep

Noise during sleep can affect your health, even if you don't wake up. Here's how to counteract the commotion.

A woman listening to music on the couch while laying down.
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Music from the late-night party at your upstairs neighbor’s apartment, the rumble of passing trucks, birds chirping predawn, or a partner’s snoring — all these noises can disrupt your sleep. Whether they come from inside or outside of your home, environmental noises can disrupt sleep, causing health impacts in both the short and long term. Fortunately, noise can be masked or completely avoided for better-quality sleep.

“In order to sleep at night,” says Chelsie Rohrscheib, Ph.D., sleep specialist and neuroscientist, “our brains have to reduce [their] heightened awareness to allow our brainwaves to slow so we can drift off to sleep. Therefore, it’s essential that our sleeping environment be free of stimulation that our brain will try to focus on, including noise.”

How To Handle Noise Disruptions if You're a Light Sleeper?

To understand how to mitigate night noise, we have to understand the problem with noise. We all have what’s called an arousal threshold, the point at which both internal and external stimuli will disturb our sleep. An example of an internal stimuli is body temperature. External stimuli examples include light, touch, noise, and more. This arousal capability dates back to the era when early humans had to worry about predator attacks.

Though it’s evolved as humans have, the arousal threshold is different from person to person, based on a variety of factors, including underlying conditions, medications, and age. Some research suggests that lighter sleepers tend to have differences in sleep spindles — the brain waves that occur during non-REM phases — than deeper sleepers. Regardless of whether you’re a light or heavy sleeper, noise at night can disrupt slumber. And if you have misophonia or are particularly sensitive to noise in general, noise at night may be a bigger disruption for you than for other people.

“Consistent noise, such as snoring,” Rohrschieb says, “may make it extremely difficult to fall asleep because your brain never has a chance to reduce attention away from the snoring sound. Conversely, a random one-off noise, such as a car horn, might quickly jolt you awake, as your brain may consider it a threat.”

Although we’d want to be able to awaken to a real threat, such as a smoke alarm warning us of a potential house fire, we want to mitigate non-threatening disturbances, like the music from a nearby house party or the loud brakes of a city bus. Fortunately, there are many options for masking sound, including wearing earplugs, using noise-canceling devices, distracting from noise with sound machines, changing elements of your sleep environment, and more.

The Effects of Noise on Sleep Quality

Researchers have found that environmental noise — like the sounds you may think you’re used to — can cause significant sleep disturbances. Sleep disruptions can have both short- and long-term negative impacts on health.

In the short term, sleep disturbances can affect mood, stress reactivity, memory, focus, pain levels, and more. In the long term, sleep disturbances can lead to issues with cardiovascular and metabolic health, such as insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, weight gain or obesity, high blood pressure, and more.

Noise at night can interfere with deep sleep and hinder the natural progression of sleep cycles. However, sleeping in a noise-free room can increase the amount of deep sleep you get by a quarter to even half an hour, which is a significant amount of the most restorative stage of sleep.

How Sleep Technology Can Help

Gone are the days of resorting to yanking a pillow over your head to block out noise — we’ve come a long way with sleep technology. Some options include noise-canceling devices for your bedroom, smart home systems that help the whole family, sound machines, or smartphone apps that mask disrupting sounds, earplugs, and more.

Noise Canceling Devices: Your Gateway to Noise-Free Nights

Noise-canceling devices are one of the best ways to enjoy a quiet night since they effectively “cancel” sound rather than creating a different noise. Plus, many noise-canceling devices, such as headphones, are portable, while others don’t require you to wear a device during sleep.

How Does Noise Canceling Work?

Noise-canceling technology works by producing an opposing sound wave that mimics the offending noise but is “out-of-phase.” This means that when the problematic sound wave is at its peak, the mimicking sound is at its trough or lowest point. The opposition of the peak and trough cancels out both sounds, leaving you with silence.

How To Avoid Noise Disruptions at Night

To avoid noise at night, you’ll need to identify sources of nighttime noise, adjust your sleeping environment, and add any devices that fit your needs.

Identifying Common Nighttime Noise Sources

First, determine what noises might be affecting your sleep. For a few days, take a moment before bed and upon waking to listen to and list the sounds you hear that creep into your bedroom from outside. These might include noises from traffic, public transportation like buses and trains, other transportation like cargo trains and planes, birds and other wildlife, insects like crickets and cicadas, passersby, creaks in your building, and more. Also, assess any sounds occurring in your room, such as pet or partner sounds, a clicking fan, a hissing radiator, or even a dripping faucet from your ensuite bathroom. Throughout your investigation, take note of any sounds that randomly wake you up.

Soundproofing Your Sleep Environment

Once you’ve identified the noises that could be disrupting your sleep, you can take action to soundproof your bedroom. For example, fix a dripping faucet or a clicking fan or bring in a plumber to assess your radiators. You can also find ways to mitigate other noises by dampening their sounds to an unobtrusive level. These might include using a noise-absorbent strip along the bottom of your bedroom door, adding rugs or additional furniture to absorb sound, or even trying an adjustable base or wedge pillow to help a snoring partner.

Install Heavy Curtains To Reduce Street Noise

“Having multi-pane, noise-blocking windows [is] one of the best ways to reduce outdoor noise from entering the bedroom,” Rohrscheib says. But if you can’t change your windows, you can opt for soundproof curtains, which help block soundwaves. Seek out a product with a Sound Transmission Class (STC) rating of 20 or higher.

Earplugs for Sleeping Without Disturbance

Earplugs are a simple option with the benefit of being relatively affordable and portable for travel. You can find earplugs with different tip sizes for a perfect fit and sleeping comfort.

Earplugs have a noise reduction rating (NRR). If you sleep in a noisy environment, aim for an NRR of 33 decibels, which is the highest level of noise reduction. Based on a specific formula, an NRR rating of 33 reduces your exposure by 13 decibels. For reference, residential urban noise generally ranges from 45 to 55 decibels.

Noise-Canceling Headphones for Sleeping

Noise-canceling headphones or earbuds are a great solution. Instead of muffling sound in general, they cancel the specific sounds in your environment. You can find versions that are comfortable for sleeping, such as headphones that double as an eye mask and wrap around your head with a soft fabric.

Exploring the Right Noise Machines

A sound or noise machine emits a continuous loop of noise to block out environmental sounds. In one small trial, researchers found that a white noise machine helped subjects fall asleep faster than they did when exposed to the normal noise around them. Beyond white noise, there is also pink noise and brown noise. Different colors of noise have different benefits.

Best Sounds To Fall Asleep To

Some sound machines emit soothing sounds, like rushing water, rain, and other natural noises. However, since these aren’t continuous homogenous sounds, they can also prove distracting for falling asleep or disruptive once you’ve nodded off.

Alternative Methods for Noise Cancelation

If sleeping with headphones bothers you, some home solutions can help cancel noise throughout the home, depending on your needs. However, these can be expensive.

Tips for Travelers: Sleeping Soundly in Noisy Environments

No matter how much you soundproof your bedroom, those changes to your home sleep environment won’t necessarily help you when you’re away for work or fun. Hotel noises or city noises you aren’t used to may keep you up, compounding issues with jet lag. So, what can you do?

Invest in portable options like earplugs or noise-canceling headphones. If you forget to pack your go-to noise-canceling devices, run a white-noise app on your smartphone. You can also try a few options that work in most hotels or vacation rentals. Take a towel and place it along the bottom of your door. Adjust the thermostat so that the AC or heat runs, creating a muffling noise. Or run the bathroom ventilation fan. If the bathroom fan switch is the same as the light switch, just close the bathroom door or wear an eye mask.

Frequently Asked Questions About Noise Cancelation for Better Sleep

Can noise really disrupt sleep patterns?

Yes, even if you don’t recognize the sleep disruption at the moment, noise can lessen the amount of deep sleep you get and disrupt your natural sleep cycle. Instead, you may spend more time awake or in the lightest non-REM stage of sleep.

Can exposure to noise while sleeping lead to long-term health issues

Yes, over time, the disruption that noise can cause to your sleep can lead to chronic health issues.

Is it ok to sleep with noise canceling?

Yes, you can safely sleep with noise-canceling headphones or other devices.

What are some common noise sources at night?

Common noise sources at night include traffic, public transportation, trains, planes, birds, insects, household items, your pets, and your partner.

How to block out traffic noise in the bedroom?

You can block out traffic noise with sound-blocking curtains, noise-canceling devices, white noise machines, and more.

Can sleeping with earplugs or headphones hurt my ears?

Sleeping with earplugs or headphones is generally safe. However, anything placed in the ear can increase the temperature and humidity of the ear canal, which could drive bacterial growth and lead to infection. Keep your reusable devices clean and minimize the reuse of disposable earplugs. If you shower before bed, dry your ears thoroughly before falling asleep with earplugs or earbuds.

How do I know if noise is keeping me from achieving deep sleep?

You can determine if noise is disrupting your deep sleep by using a sleep-tracking device. Some of these devices can track your sleep quality, any interruptions during sleep, your sleep phases — such as when you are in deep sleep — and more.

Are there natural remedies to improve sleep without noise-canceling devices?

Yes, as more natural options, you can wear earplugs or soundproof your room.

Is noise masking better than noise cancelation for sleep?

One option is not necessarily better than the other. What works for you will depend on your individual needs.