It feels like half a million issues can pop up that negatively impact our sleep. From a stressful project at work, to an uncomfortable pillow , to the upstairs neighbor tap dancing at midnight, we’re often in a battle to get restorative sleep. Unwanted noise can be a major cause for disrupted sleep. Some people find a white-noise machine or a fan to mask any noises , but this doesn’t cut it for all sleepers. For some, sleep headphones could be a solution to a great night’s sleep.
Coming in a range of styles and prices with different features, sleep headphones are specifically designed to be comfortable enough to wear all night and help block out disruptive noises in your environment so you can sleep well regardless of what’s happening around you. But how do you choose the right pair to match your sleeping style and how safe is it to wear headphones to bed every night?
What are sleep headphones?
Noise-canceling headphones are a game-changer for noisy situations — think airplanes and offices. But imagine wearing those same bulky, over-the-ear headphones to bed. If you sleep on your back with your head pointed toward the ceiling, the design of the headphones might not get in the way. But if you sleep on your stomach or side, those headphones will be the first thing to hit your pillow, putting some serious pressure on your ear and skull. Standard earbuds are often made of hard plastic or sometimes a wire, and neither of those play nice with a comfortable night’s rest, if they even stay in your ears.
Sleep headphones, though, are specifically designed to be worn comfortably for someone lying on a pillow for the eight-ish hours you’ll spend asleep. They’re made with soft fabrics and pliable silicon, so there should not be any pain when you lie down, nor pressure to either ear. They’re also designed with a secure fit, enabling them to stay on despite tossing and turning. If you’re comfortable with earbuds, look for those made with silicon that come with several sizes of ear tips to ensure they fit properly.
If the idea of sleeping with something in your ears already makes you feel uncomfortable, an appealing alternative is a pair in a headband design. These feature thin speakers over both ears and are made out of a material that’s soft enough to sleep on. Stretchy or sized materials should help you get a secure, but comfortable fit. Some are even machine-washable (without the speakers, which are easy to remove).
If you’re a restless sleeper or tend to change positions often, wireless sleep headphones are likely to be the best option.
Sleep neurologist and Sleep.com Sleep Advisor Dr. Chris Winter says sleep headphones could be great for some sleepers and in certain situations “Using headphones to create a quiet environment is a positive,” he says. “And headphones that are more comfortable and can be worn for longer periods of time like in bed or on a plane are great.”
What do sleep headphones play?
Like scrolling through Netflix, you have many options when it comes to what your sleep headphones can play to lull you off to sleep. But the selection is often dependent on which pair of sleep headphones you have. Most are able to wirelessly connect to your phone to stream any music, white noise, binaural track, podcast, or audiobook you choose. Some come with timers to fade sound as the night wears on, and many come with programmable alarms so you don’t have to worry about sleeping in too late.
If your sleep headphones allow you to stream whatever you choose, you can then create a playlist or single track that plays for the duration you’re aiming to be asleep, whether it’s a full eight hours or just long enough to help you fall asleep.
Other sleep headphones connect only to their associated apps to access a library of tranquil sleep sounds and allow you to select how long you’d like them to play for.
While plenty of studies have linked improved sleep quality to the influence of music, not many have specified exactly what sounds are best to help us achieve optimal rest. Overall, most recommend calming music which is subjective based on each person’s preferences. However, studies do agree that white noise or pink noise can be an effective masking tool for sleep environments that aren’t as quiet as we’d like.
Is it safe to wear headphones to bed?
While we all understand sleep is a major component in our overall health, ear health is also important. We talked with Dr. Kindra Veith, an audiologist in Seattle, to dive into some details about how to safely wear headphones while sleeping. She explains that volume and duration are the two main components when it comes to making sure our ears aren’t getting harmed while we try to lull off to sleep.
“Even if it’s at a moderate volume level, if it’s for nine hours while you’re sleeping, that cumulatively is a significant amount of noise exposure,” Veith says. She recommends following the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health guidelines for a safe decibel level. For eight hours of exposure, the volume should be 85 decibels or lower.
While listening at a safe volume is in our power, Veith says there are two other issues that could come from wearing sleep headphones every night — earwax impaction and infections. “When you put something into your ear every day that’s as big as an earbud or something like that, you’re pushing your ear wax in deeper and eventually that could build up,” she says. Veith also warns that you should keep the earbuds clean. “Headphones build up bacteria on them, especially if you’re putting them in a hot, moist environment every single night , ” Veith says. “One risk of sleeping with something in your ear is that you could have a higher incidence of a fungal infection similar to athlete’s foot, but inside of your ear.”
Veith says the headband style of sleep headphones could be the best option for many sleepers to avoid earwax impaction. She also notes that sleepers could be best off with a pair of customized sleep plugs that will mask noises but won’t add in any noise exposure. Those can also be easily cleaned with mild soap and water after each use to ensure there’s no bacteria buildup.
But if you sleep best with an earbud-style sleep headphone, Veith says getting restorative sleep trumps all else. “I am a huge fan of doing whatever you need to do to get to sleep,” Veith says. “I tell my patients, ‘I don’t care what you do to get sleep as long as you’re sleeping.’”
Sleepers sensitive to noise could also try earplugs. Like the custom sleep plugs Veith mentioned, earplugs are designed to block out or minimize disruptive noise and don’t add in any noise exposure. Most earplugs are likely to be a lower-cost option when compared to custom sleep plugs or sleep headphones, but it’s also possible they’d be more convenient in some situations like traveling. Earplugs also won’t ever run out of battery in the middle of the night.
As far as which blocks out noise best, that depends on each individual. Winter says, “The sleep headphones I’ve tried tend to block out external sounds much better than any earplugs I've ever used.”
Can sleep headphones help you get better sleep?
There are many situations when wearing headphones to bed can assist with sleep, but a few groups in particular are likely to benefit from their ability to not only remove noise but also take in the calming presence of sleep-specific music, podcasts, or a meditation aid while falling asleep. You may appreciate sleeping with headphones if you have:
A racing mind when it comes to bedtime
Sometimes life can feel overwhelming. It’s possible that once bedtime rolls around, our brains take the opportunity of the silence at night to bounce around all sorts of topics. From reliving that embarrassing moment in fourth grade to worrying about bills, quieting a racing mind at night can feel impossible. Some sleepers find relief by distracting their minds with something calming like soothing music, a sleep-inducing podcast, or guided meditation. What better way to pipe these in than with sleep headphones?
Environmental noises you want to tune out
You could have the perfect sleeping environment but still struggle to fall and stay asleep thanks to external noise. A snoring partner, a loud neighbor, or a dog that barks all night could mean a groggy morning. Sleep headphones aim to block out those noises that could interrupt an otherwise perfect night’s sleep. If you often wake up from environmental noises you can’t keep from occurring, sleep headphones could help drown out these noises .
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 50 million Americans deal with tinnitus. Tinnitus can come about from a variety of reasons but in almost all cases it leaves the individual hearing a buzzing, ringing, hissing, or other distracting noise that’s only audible to them.
Many studies find strong links between tinnitus and insomnia with many saying it can be difficult to ignore the noise while falling asleep. Sleep headphones could help mask the noise from tinnitus with white noise or music. Alternatively , it could provide distraction with an audiobook, podcast, or meditation app.
How to find the best style of sleep headphones for you
While it’s not out of the question to wear everyday headphones or earbuds to bed, sleep headphones are specifically designed with sleeping in mind. Sleep headphones are made with features and softer materials to make them bedtime-friendly and less likely to wind up under your pillow or somewhere in the blankets.
When trying to decide what type of sleep headphones to choose it’s important to keep in mind what position you usually sleep in. Some sleep headphone styles are better suited for back sleepers while others should be comfortable enough for side and stomach sleepers whose ears rest on the pillow.
The smallest option for sleep headphones are earbuds. Similar in style to the ones we wear for work calls or to workout, sleep earbuds are often made of soft silicone that sit in the ear canal and don’t add a bulky layer that could be uncomfortable to sleep on.
The Bose Sleepbuds II (pictured above) are a popular choice for sleep headphones that feature a silicone earbud and ear tip, designed to keep them securely in place while sleeping. The one caveat for the Bose Sleepbuds II is you won’t be able to stream your own media. Instead, the Sleepbuds connect with the Bose Sleep App to access their library of tranquil sounds and music in a noise-covering, not noise-canceling experience.
Kokoon Nightbuds are another solid option that are specifically designed to be comfortable enough for side sleepers. With the ability to connect to your own music library, the Kokoon Nightbuds also sync with an app to track sleep and have an alarm feature. With 14 hours of battery life, it’s possible to get two nights of sleep on a single charge.
For travel, Sound Oasis, which bills itself as the World’s Smallest White Noise Machine™, offers 10 different tones of continuous white noise in a machine small enough to clip onto a belt loop. The machine comes with three sizes of ear buds for comfort.
If you’re not a fan of earbuds, a headband design could be a more comfortable choice. This style tucks thin speakers into a headband made of material that’s soft enough to wear in bed.
SleepPhones are a popular choice and come in three sizes to help get the best fit and won’t need to be charged often since the battery can last for up to 24 hours. An inexpensive option like the Fulext Sleep Headband could be a good entry point if you’re not totally sold on wearing headphones to bed yet.
If noise is the primary culprit to your sleep troubles , sleeping with headphones could be a simple solution to help get some rest. With styles suited to almost every sleep preference, drifting off to calming ocean sounds, a nighttime podcast, or some meditation could make a world of difference in your life. Just remember to check on the volume.