74% of Americans say a quiet bedroom is important to a good night’s sleep. But how do noises affect your sleep quality and what can you do about it?
One common piece of advice to improve your overall sleep is to ensure your bedroom is completely silent. Meanwhile, there are people who prefer to sleep with white noise, podcasts, music and more.
Let’s examine how different noises impact your sleep and see if there’s some leeway to the total silence rule.
Of course, you can hear while sleeping. Noise affects sleep all the time—how do you think your alarm wakes you up in the morning, or you can hear your baby crying at all hours?
You don’t hear things in as much detail as you do while awake. Your brain can only process noise at the most basic level. Still, it’s enough to wake you, or at least put you into another stage of sleep—from deep to light, for example.
Noise can even change your blood pressure or your heart rate. Your body is always working in response to exterior stimuli, and it often responds the same way it would while awake.
You clearly have noise preferences while awake and they present while you’re sleeping, too.
Noise always has the ability to affect your sleep, whether it wakes you or otherwise. However, disruptions are more likely to occur when you’re in light sleep. You spend most of your night in stage two sleep, which is light, and stage one mainly occurs while you’re falling asleep. That’s why when you’re startled awake by something you usually feel clear-headed.
Stages three and four, deep sleep, are often too deep to let you wake. If you wake from these you may feel groggy and unpleasant, even irritable. If you wake in the morning feeling unrested because your alarm ripped through your dreams—which occur in REM sleep most of the time—and woke you before your body was ready.
Here’s where it gets interesting—you won’t always wake up from noise. Research revealed that it depends on what the noise is, and how you relate to it. Emotionally charged sounds are more likely to wake you, where you’ll sleep through the general drone of snores and hushed chatter.
If a baby cries or your dog is scratching at the door then you’re far more likely to wake from it. This is quite a positive—it means you’ll wake up for the important stuff, but if your partner is snoring particularly loudly one night then it shouldn’t disturb you much, if at all.
Noise, regardless of the type, won’t disturb everyone. “Sound sleepers” won’t wake up as often as other people based on external stimuli. This has been proven by a 1977 study, So, when someone tells you they’re a “deep sleeper” and you’ll have to work hard to wake them, it’s true.
While everyone responds to various noises differently, there are a few that have been studied. We’ll talk you through them now so you can learn what different sounds can do to disrupt or enhance your slumber.
Let’s start with the stereotypical—white machines are a well-known sleep aid, and many people can’t sleep without them. There’s a good reason for that, though. Research shows that white noise is beneficial to your sleep as it helps you keep unwanted noise disturbances at bay.
Ambient noise varies considerably in sleep. Sometimes your partner snores and sometimes they don’t. Some nights are more traffic-heavy than others. White noise, on the other hand, is constant.
White noise provides a solid foundation, a background to your slumber. It’s unchanging so it helps your brain focus on that one, non-disruptive sound. With your focus on this, your brain can ignore a honking car horn or a door slammed by a child sneaking down for food at night.
Any white noise should work, so long as it’s unchanging. Perhaps you can purchase a white noise machine, but if you have a fan, dehumidifier, or some other applicable, that can work too. So long as the machine stays on all night and has a constant sound then you’re good to go. You may end up with increased sleeping duration, reduced sleep latency, and further benefits.
Some people find it comforting to sleep with the TV on all night. While this sounds harmless once you can sleep through it, it can actually disrupt your sleep. It changes frequently, in volume, pitch and tone, and more. This is essentially the opposite of the white noise discussed above.
Plus, you have to remember that you’re sensitive to emotional noise. What if a baby crying on television wakes you up? Then you may find it hard to get back to sleep, you have to wake up a bit more to turn off the TV, and that’s a significant sleep disruption. It could set you up for fatigue and drowsiness in the morning.
Keep the noise to a minimum, putting the TV on quietly may even harm your sleep rhythms. Ideally, you want to keep the TV off while you sleep.
For best results don’t have a TV or other device in your bedroom. Stay away from screens for at least 30 minutes before sleep, as the blue light they emit can negatively impact your sleep.
Maybe you sleep early and your teenagers stay up late. Or, maybe you’re a young shift worker still living at home and your mum just loves to hoover outside your bedroom door right after your shift. Family noise crops up in a number of ways, so sometimes it’s difficult to get that silent sleep you desperately need.
Sit down as a family and discuss everyone’s sleep needs if you can. Buy the teenagers some headphones and ask them to whisper. Beg your mum to change the hoovering schedule. If you have younger kids, optimize their sleep routine so you have a few hours to relax before bed, and silence once you’re under the covers.
Your kids need more sleep than you and they should be up early for school, so this means an early bedtime. Eight, sometimes seven in the evening is the best time.
So, ensure you keep them away from screens 30 minutes before bed and perhaps read them a story while soft music plays in the background.
Turn out as many lights as possible, wish your kids sweet dreams, and gently bring them back to bed if they get up again in the minutes or hours following.
While your kids are sleeping, stay in another room—on another floor of a house is best—and keep all noise to a minimum. Turn down the TV and speak in hushed tones.
Read more: How Much Sleep Does A Child Need?
Ensure your kids are sound asleep before going to bed so you can get a few hours of sleep before the nighttime happenings begin. Nightmares, assisted toilet trips, thirsty kids in the small hours …
There’s really no way to combat this other than teaching your kids beforehand to be able to help themselves. Leave water in their room, teach them how to use the bathroom unassisted, find nightmare coping mechanisms.
Try to swap nights with your partner if your kids are very needy during sleep time. Or, if one parent works later than the other and needs to sleep later too, earplugs are a must to sleep through the noise of the family morning routine.
Oh, the most uncontrollable noise—that of a city or an otherwise busy area. You may be able to sleep through it because you’re used to it, but at times it can become unbearably loud. It’s doubtful that anyone can sleep through a band of drunk youths sauntering and singing past your window at two in the morning.
All of this can negatively impact your sleep. Some research shows that a lack of sleep due to noise production can cause hypertension. More research is needed to determine if this is entirely true, but the associations are still there.
The first place you should go is your neighbours, ask them to turn down loud music, control their barking dog and combat anything else they can. For the rest of it, there’s nothing preventative you can do.
White noise is your best bet. The constant can block out the unpleasant outside noise, and in extreme cases, earplugs can help. Earplugs are definitely the go-to if you leave near an airport or another busy public area.
White noise is highly beneficial for your sleep, but all other noises are disturbances you really don’t want. They disrupt your sleep patterns, leave you irritable and tired the next day, and worse.
Do your best to minimize noise using white noise and earplugs. While there’ll never be a perfect fix, it’s better than trying to sleep through and grow accustomed to the noise you can’t prevent.
Disclaimer – The advice above should not be considered medical advice and is meant to provide an overview of the kind of sleep issues seniors and older people may face. If you are at all concerned about your health, no matter what age, always consult your GP.