A new-mum friend of mine recently confessed that one of the only things that would get her baby off to sleep was standing in front of the extractor fan. That soothing hum and never-ending whirring was as close as she could get to mimicking the sounds her newborn was used to in her tummy (i.e., the sound of blood rushing around the womb). But it's not just juveniles that can benefit from an earful of white noise. It's been found to help bad sleepers switch off by creating a sort of sound "cocoon," so rather than tuning into one specific noise, it creates a background buzz.
This means your brain finds it near impossible to pick out every single sound so it gives up, relaxes, et voilà, you're lulled off into a better sleep and feel calmer in the meantime. Perfect if you're one of those people who finds meditation and "letting thoughts come and go" especially frustrating. We're not all natural born meditators.
What exactly is white noise?
Like white light is a combination of various frequencies of colour, white noise is the audio version. A mash-up of different frequencies of sound it means we're probably tuning into around 20,000 various tones—all at the same time. Washing machine, TV, radio, microwave, air con, traffic: Put them together and you'll get a hissing or blurring sound that's monotonous but also bizarrely comforting as it works to mute our own internal systems.
"White noise provides a monotonous background that drowns out sudden sounds that could disturb sleep or relaxation," explains Jim Brown, MD, sleep consultant at BXR Powered by CHHP Clinic. "The sleeping brain is able to filter out familiar noises and so once you're used to the white noise, normal sleep should be maintained."
If electro-static sounds are too terrifying, there's natural white noise too. Waterfalls, waves, rain, fire crackles—it all counts. Apps like Sound Sleeper, Calm, Noisili and White Noise Lite have plenty of options you can tune into till you find your groove. Philps has also announced it'll be launching a clinically proven headband called SmartSleep this spring that will play various tones and beats to help you get your bedtime zen on.
What else is it good for?
As well as snoozing and switching off, listening to white noise has been prescribed for those with tinnitus, as it masks that constant ringing sound in the ears. Plus there have been several studies linking it to cognitive behaviour benefits. The University of Queensland recently found that white noise can increase your ability to learn new words, improve attention spans and increase memory formation.
Whack some on when you have your afternoon slump and you might not need that extra coffee after all! Just don't get addicted. While that constant buzz is okay to drift off to, others say that listening to it 24/7, especially at a high volume, can release cortisol, the stress hormone, which could have the opposite effect you were hoping for. In short, it's a good thing in small doses.