I've heard it claimed that white noise improves sleep quality, and anecdotally I've found it to sometimes be true. There are many white noise devices targeted at improving sleep, but research on the topic is scant.

Does anyone know of thorough studies looking at positive and negative effects of white noise generators and sleep?

I am skeptical of the general claim based on a few heuristics:

  • I've found limited studies (and no meta studies)
  • My own experience shows both positive and negative effects
  • The available gadgets I've found do not cite reputable claims, instead relying on appeal to common knowledge or anecdote
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    white noise can also be used to keep someone from sleeping... – ratchet freak Feb 21 '14 at 9:47

It depends.

There have been several experiments on the effect of white noise on sleep, under different conditions leading to different conclusions:

We studied two groups of 20 neonates, between 2 and 7 days old, in a randomised trial. Sixteen (80%) fell asleep within five minutes in response to white noise compared with only five (25%) who fell asleep spontaneously in the control group. White noise may help mothers settle difficult babies.

Eight male college students slept for 8 consecutive nights under conditions of 93 ± 2 dB white noise (N) and under normal quiet conditions (Q). On N nights the percentage of total sleep time spent in stage REM was decreased (p < .001), the percentages of stages 1 and 2 were increased (p < .05, p < .001, respectively) and REM latency was increased (p < .02) compared to Q nights prior to N nights. On Q nights following N nights the percentages of stage REM increased above baseline levels indicating compensatory recovery effects from REM sleep deprivation on the prior N nights. Stages 3 and 4 remained unchanged throughout the study. The reduction in stage REM on N nights was directly attributed to the effects of noise on the CNS and not a secondary result of an increased number of awakenings on N nights.

Mixed frequency white noise increases arousal thresholds in normal individuals exposed to recorded ICU noise by reducing the difference between background noise and peak noise.

  • Fascinating. With plans to have a child soon, I'll be using a white noise generator to get the little one off to sleep! – Owen C. Jones Feb 26 '14 at 16:40
  • Got nothing to add that is actually in answer to the question, but the use of White Noise to achieve the Ganzfield effect is certainly suggestive that it has a pretty unusual neurological affect – Owen C. Jones Feb 26 '14 at 16:43
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    Thank you for the referenced studies. It's worth noting that this is still a limited set of studies, and the conclusions suggest that more data is needed before there is a clear recommendation. – Bruce Alderson Feb 27 '14 at 19:36
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    93 dB? That would be like having a lawn mower outside your bedroom. Outrageous. Loud noise overall has been proven to damage peoples' health in many ways (as well as their hearing). The natural environment does not include lots of white noise, unless you live near a waterfall. – user29285 Apr 20 '16 at 1:27

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