Why Do Some People Need Noise to Sleep?

From white-noise machines to the TV, many can’t get any rest without their favorite sounds.

A tiny, portable television was one of the most invaluable items in my home growing up. It was ancient and useless — at best, it might pick up portions of a mattress commercial once every few months. The rest of the time, the shoebox-sized device blared “snow,” that white noise fuzz station of a television with no signal. Yet it remained on nearly at all times. I required it to sleep at night. And my father required it to sleep during the day, along with a shirt over his face.

At the time, any TV could produce snow, as it was simply a byproduct of analog transmissions. They’ve since been banned for more than 10 years — when the FCC mandated that all television signals must be transmitted digitally in 2009, analog television and its white noise went away.

Of course, most of us have adapted to our loss of analog’s fuzz channel. Dozens of apps attempt to fill the gap, while some have turned to white-noise machines, YouTube playlists or the hum of an A/C unit to fill the void.

Most commonly, people require some form of white noise to sleep simply because it blocks out other noises. It adequately covers up the sounds of your family stomping through the house without making you entirely dead to the world in the way earplugs might. Eventually, white noise becomes a familiar comfort. But some studies suggest that requiring background noise to sleep is an unhealthy habit: It essentially sets us up to require a specific set of conditions in order to sleep — without them, we might be unable to get the rest we need. And true white noise, produced with a machine or app that releases multiple frequencies of sound at once, has been linked to tinnitus with extended use.

Yet for many white-noise sleepers, contemplating the long-term effects are pointless. Sure, maybe sleeping with my loud box fan will make it difficult for me to sleep in a hotel room a few months from now, but it’ll allow me to fall asleep tonight, which seems a bit more important. “I use two fans and a white noise machine in the hallway, usually,” says Chet Gresham, an editor at DraftKings Nation. “I’ll go with an app in a pinch but the sound is usually too grating compared to the fans.” If he happens to be in a situation where no white noise is available, “that’s when drugs must be consumed,” he adds.

MEL Magazine staff writer Hussein Kesvani often uses an app, too, though he usually just finds white noise playlists on Spotify or YouTube. “I also have an old MP3 player that I loaded with a two-hour white noise mix,” he says. “I’ve now found it really hard to sleep without being physically tired without noise, though — like yesterday, I went to bed at midnight and didn’t fall asleep until 2 a.m. because it was pin-drop silent” (he had stayed at his parents’ home, but left his laptop at his apartment).

Others prefer to sleep with noises that might otherwise keep someone awake, like music or television. “I need to have a TV show playing on my laptop if I’m sleeping alone or else I won’t sleep,” says Tatiana, a freelance writer. “I go through phases. In college, it was Seinfeld every night. In the past year, it was Frasier. Now, it’s weirdly Skins and Twin Peaks.” She keeps them playing throughout the night. “It’s incredibly soothing and stops me from feeling anxious or having nightmares,” she continues.

Certain shows are apparently particularly popular choices for TV-show sleepers: “I’m also a Frasier-sleeper sometimes. There are whole threads about it on r/Frasier,” says Cole, a copywriter for Florida State Parks. Indeed, on the subreddit, one user posted that because Frasier was recently removed from Netflix and they don’t have Hulu on their bedroom television, they’ve been unable to properly sleep. “I’ve been Frasier sober since New Year’s Day… Tonight I broke… I’m sleeping on my couch until I can figure out a longer-term solution tomorrow,” they wrote.

As a kid, I eventually moved from the mini TV’s static to the comforting sounds of Nick At Nite or TV Land. I’d often drift into sleep after a few episodes of Full House and inevitably be awoken by the saxophone of War’s “Low Rider” in the opening credits of George Lopez a few hours later. But by that time, I could turn off the TV. The hard part of falling asleep was over, and the glow of Lopez jumping on the screen was evidence that I’d made it halfway through the night.

I’ve made things a bit easier on myself now. Any fan or A/C unit is preferable, but I can do without if needed. Still, I can only imagine the deep rest I might receive if only I still had that blaring little box. A white-noise app just doesn’t compare.