Noise To Help You Nod Off

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Some Sonic Backstory

When I was a kid, I would wait all year for the week-long Disney Channel free preview. I had a stack of VHS tapes and a VCR ready to go, and would basically just park in front of the TV the entire time. Afraid of missing even a second of free wonderment, I would wait in front of the static channel for the preview to start. Two things would happen as I waited: I would catch little glimpses of scrambled Disney action and sounds, and I would get super tired listening to the static. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my introduction to white noise as a sleep aid. 

Shaking and Shushing

Fast forward 20 years or so, and my wife and I had our first baby. This kid absolutely would not sleep. Starting at about 6PM, she would scream like a banshee straight through until morning. Our midwife gave a two-pronged suggestion that worked wonders: “shake and shush.” I’m not going to get into the “shake” component (more on that another time), but I do want to point out that this wasn’t the baby-shaking you’re warned against, but more of a “vibrate.”

The “shush” component seemed to be the major factor in getting the baby to sleep. I would hold her close, and basically just say “SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH” for as long and as loud as I could near her ear. It was crazy how fast she would stop screaming and just fade off to dreamland. The problem with this process: she would wake up as soon as I stopped. This got me looking into white noise machines. 

We tried several with varying results until I came across one that also offered “pink” and “brown” noise in addition to “white.” I didn’t know what those were, but I found that the “brown” noise function was a lot closer to the shushing I was doing with my mouth. This was the ticket for baby’s bedtime. 

The Differences Between White, Pink, and Brown Noise

I thought all static noise was considered white noise, but that’s not the case. There’s a full, rich spectrum of staticy sound that falls into specific categories, with pink and brown probably the next most famous compared to white. 

Here’s the basic comparison:

  • White noise is a static sound with a greater emphasis on the high-end tones. Think of the sound of a spraying waterfall. 
  • Pink noise is similar to white, but with a greater emphasis on lower-end tones. Think of the sound of heavy rain. 
  • Brown noise is similar to pink, but steps even further into the low-end tones, almost like sub-bass compared to normal bass tones. Think of the sound of rolling ocean waves. 

I may not be the best at descriptions, so here’s an interesting side-by-side-by-side comparison of the three sound types:

White Noise vs Pink Noise vs Brown Noise (Side by Side Preview)

But Does Noise Help You Sleep?

Copout answer: it depends. This study from 2012 showed that pink noise helped people achieve better, “more stable” sleep compared to individuals who slept in silence. More anecdotally, my baby absolutely slept better and longer when using the brown noise function on her machine – but there’s more to that story. 

Because our baby was sleeping in our room, I was also exposed to whatever noise she was hearing. For me, it was absolute hell – especially on the higher-toned sounds of pink and white noise.

I don’t know if it was from those early years, watching and waiting for the Disney preview to come into focus, or what, but ALL I HEAR in virtually any static are patterns, voices, and even repeated chants inside the noise. When I am exposed to these static signals, my mind goes into overdrive trying to decode these hidden “messages,” and I find myself completely and totally unable to unwind. 

My advice is to try some experiments to determine what works best for you. Maybe it’s a static on the white-pink-brown spectrum, maybe it’s a custom playlist, or maybe it’s just absolute pure quiet. Don’t get pressured into doing what works for someone else if it’s not helping YOU. And if you’re like me and hear voices in the noise, please don’t follow the directives they’re giving you.