Do rain noises really help you fall asleep?
We wanted to know if the claim holds water.
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Falling asleep after a stressful day can feel next to impossible. It can be extra challenging if there are additional sounds—like traffic or barking dogs—that are keeping you awake.
One potential answer to these difficulties is listening to rain sounds. You may have heard anecdotal evidence that the pitter-pattering of raindrops can help people doze off, and plenty of white noise and sound machines feature these tracks. But there’s also research that supports the idea that rain noises are a useful sleep aid.
So, we got to wondering: Does this trick really work—and if so, why?
Rain noise conceals other sounds
Rain sounds can mask other sharper noises in your environment, says Orfeu Buxton, director of the Sleep, Health & Society Collaboratory at Penn State. (Buxton has received grants from Proactive Life LLC, which produces a smartphone white noise app.)
“Think of a dripping faucet in the other room—in utter silence it might be a water torture treatment,” Buxton says. “With a masking background of… wind in the leaves, gentle rain outside, or medium distant surf playing on a loop on a speaker, the drip would never be detected.”
Rain sounds can create a soothing background noise, agrees Todd Arnedt, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Michigan.
Rain noises might literally hit the right frequencies
By masking background sounds, rain tracks might seem like they're just ordinary white noise—but they aren't. To begin with, white noise is an umbrella term for a variety of sounds, which are named after colors such as blue and brown.
Rain sounds are considered pink noise, which are characterized by louder sounds at a low frequency and softer sounds at high frequencies as compared to typical white noise. Pink noise is common in biosystems, meaning that animals naturally produce pink noise as part of their internal functioning. Heartbeats, for example, are another type of pink noise.
Some research suggests that pink noise in particular can improve sleep in healthy individuals. “There is limited data that pink noise might... enhance slow waves during sleep, at least in healthy individuals,” Arnedt says.
Slow waves are associated with deep sleep, the part of the sleep cycle when the brain is less responsive to outside stimuli. Arendt says it “is an important stage of sleep for sustaining brain and body health.”
A 2017 study on older adults found that listening to pulses of pink noise during slow wave activity improved sleep-related memory. Other researchers found that steady pink noise can induce more stable sleep and improve sleep quality. The authors claim that listening to pink noise synchronizes brain waves to improve sleep stability.
While pink noise may prove useful to some troubled sleepers, Arendt cautions that this may not be the case for everyone. “I am not aware that its benefit has been tested in people with insomnia,” he says.
Individuals experiencing insomnia or chronic issues falling or staying asleep should consult their primary care physician.
Research suggests that nature has a calming effect
In addition to helping people doze off, rain sounds can be straight-up relaxing. This may be attributable to the fact that they’re a natural sound—evidence points to psychological benefits, including increasing cognitive capacity and reducing anxiety and stress (the latter research was on patients undergoing surgery).
People exposed to nature sounds in a 2017 study had an increased parasympathetic response, meaning that the calming part of their nervous system was activated by these tracks, whereas those who listened to artificial sounds didn’t experience the same effect.
Should you try rain sounds?
Rain sounds might help some people, but they’re not for everyone. Buxton cautions that different sounds will evoke different responses depending on the individual.
“One person’s gentle rain is another’s flood worry or need to go to the bathroom,” he says. Similarly, “gentle rain with distant thunder is calming for some and alarming for others.”
If you want to see whether rain sounds can improve your sleep, there are a number of ways to get started.
- You can listen to rain sounds for free online on YouTube or through Calmsound, a website available on desktop or mobile devices through Apple Music and Spotify.
- If you still use a CD player, there are disks devoted to the sound, like Calming Rain, which was created by a music therapist. This could be a great option for anyone who doesn’t want a computer or phone to be part of their nightly routine.
- There are also apps that curate a selection of rain noises including Rain Rain Sleep Sounds and Rain Sounds HQ. Some meditation apps like Headspace offer nature sounds including rain.
- Some of our favorite alarm clocks and bedside devices also feature built-in white and pink noises. The Google Nest Hub, for example, has a number of tracks that can help you wind down.
- For those with a bed partner who’s sensitive to sounds, the Bose Sleep Buds offer in-ear noise-masking—though it may take some time to adjust to wearing them.
Many of us are on the quest for better sleep. Sometimes this requires discipline, like sticking to a schedule for when you head to bed and wake up. Sometimes better sleep can necessitate money, like purchasing a mattress with adequate support. Listening to rain sounds or another type of soothing pink noise is pretty low commitment and low cost. It might be worth a shot for catching better zzz's.
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