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The science behind why noise stops us sleeping well

Discover how noise affects the quality of our sleep, and why it impacts us all in different ways. Most of us need peace and quiet in order to drift off to sleep – and stay there – but why are we sensitive to sound when we’re asleep, and how come some lucky people sleep through more noise than others?

A man in bed covering his ears with a pillow.
A man in bed covering his ears with a pillow.

Why noise is a problem
The simple reason noise affects sleep is that sound stimulates the brain, and research shows that even when we’re asleep, our brains are still listening out for noise. The arrival of sound into the brain triggers its waking centre, keeping it alert and therefore getting in the way of sleep.

When we’re most sensitive
There are points in our sleep cycle when we’re more susceptible to noise disturbance. We’re most sensitive to sound during the light and REM (rapid eye movement) stages, which together, usually account for more than half of our sleep time. So you might be lucky enough not to wake up if noise occurs at a point when you happen to be sleeping deeply.

Light and deep sleepers
Some people are, of course, lighter sleepers than others. What wakes you up may go completely unnoticed by your deep-sleeping partner, for example. This could be down to differences in individuals’ hearing abilities, as well as their personal sleep cycles, as some of us naturally spend longer in the REM and light stages than others.

Find out how to block out noise at night

For more sleep inspiration and tips on how to improve your bedroom environment, visit our dedicated sleep hub.

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