If you’re a lifelong sufferer of sleep like me, then nothing is worse at bedtime that irregular noise that you can’t control. Whether it’s noisy neighbors or roommates, or that damn mini-fridge making weird sounds that wake you up…
The optimal strategy is to use earplugs or moving where you sleep to reduce the noise as much as possible. Failing that, addressing the source of the noise quickly is the only option, even if it means a difficult conversation.
Of course, that’s a simplified version of the strategy I’ve built up over many years that now results in many more good nights than bad ones, however noisy it is. I can promise that these strategies are battle-tested and also don’t seem to be really recommended anywhere else (god knows I looked for this information over the past decade!)
How To Sleep In Noisy Environments
I’ve been kept awake by a lot of things over the years, and probably the number one issue I’ve had is with quiet or loud irregular noises that I can’t ignore. As such, here is my system for dealing with this stuff.
· 1. Wear earplugs. I can honestly say that wearings earplugs has changed my life and improved my sleep immeasurably. This evaded me for so long because I thought the only earplugs available are cheap foam rubbish that doesn’t block out the closing of a door ten miles away.
The key is to get good ones that have an officially certified ‘Noise Reduction Ratio’. My personal recommendation is the ones that are on Amazon here. They fit snugly in your ear and do a decent job dampening most sounds, although they certainly don’t block out everything which is when you need to move onto the other steps.
· 2. Move your bed/sleeping position. I used to have a roommate who I’d hear snoring through the walls. It drove me crazy for a few months until I realized I could move my bed to the other side of the room which pretty much solved the problem instantly.
Soundwaves work on the inverse square law which means that the further away you are from the source of the noise, the volume will decrease exponentially. So moving even a couple of meters can make a big difference.
· 3. Talk to the person. Jean-Paul Sartre, famously wrote in one of his plays: “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” That’s French for “Hell is other people.” When it comes to trying to sleep, this is certainly true.
All your problems with noise are going to come from other people, particularly those who sleep well, who simply cannot understand how to keep a lid on it after midnight. This is such an important part of dealing with noisy places that I’ve dedicated its own section to it a little below.
· 4. Stay up late. If you go to bed after the person making the noise has gone to bed, there’s no more noise. (Cue head tap.) This is probably the biggest reason why most of my life I’ve been a night owl, you don’t have to deal with people’s noise and sleeping in the morning is easier (for me, at least).
Even if you have to get up early the next day, I find staying up late preferable. Four hours sleep isn’t ideal, but if you combine that with another four hours of lying in bed being kept awake it will be ten times worse.
· 5. Move house/room. This is the last resort option but if your sleep is getting ruined on a regular basis it is simply the only thing that truly works and it can make an extraordinary difference in your quality of life.
I currently live in a small 1-bedroom apartment which thick walls. I’d like to live somewhere nicer, somewhere bigger, in a better location but having been cursed with being an extremely light sleeper this is the happiest I’m going to be.
Should I just try to ignore the noise?
Let me preface this by saying that this article is addressed towards light sleepers and those who struggle to fall asleep ONLY. The rest of you just don’t understand, I’m sorry.
Trying to ignore small sounds that keep you awake is like trying to ignore politics when you live in 1930s Germany. Impossible to do and with dire consequences. I’ve tried this an loads of occasions on the goodhearted but misguided suggestions of people who sleep much better than me.
The result is that I become irrationally angry at the source of the noise and totally despondent about the amount of sleep I’m getting, how bad I’ll feel tomorrow and the general state of my life.
Now, this isn’t the case for all sounds. Personally, I have some minor tinnitus issues to deal with and while this really annoyed me to begin with (it sounds like a kind of beeping and I spent months wondering what electrical device it was coming from!)
I’ve now just accepted that it’s a part of who I am so it literally never bothers me anymore. I’m the same with the hum of traffic from the street or an AC unit, no problem. Now get on to people talking or laughing or any kind of music and I will go utterly crazy trying to ignore it.
What to do about snoring?
Snoring is a peculiar case that deserves its own section as it is usually coming from the person you share a bed with. (Not always of course, as evidenced by my story above of the guy who was my roommate whose chainsaw-like snoring would permeate through the walls and into my eardrum.
I’ve written about this topic more extensively here, if it’s a real problem for you then I’d recommend you read the full article.
The basics of it are to always wear earplugs, keep at the other side of the bed from your partner, give them a jolt if need be (unethical but effective) and have a failsafe backup plan for sleeping in another room.
Staying in hotel rooms
If you’re on the road, this can be both a blessing and a curse. Most modern hotels and hotel rooms are very well soundproofed although if you’re on a budget, the older and cheaper ones tend to have more problems.
If you’re planning a hotel to stay in, you have the luxury of using TripAdvisor to make sure there are no noise complaints. If you go to reviews and do a search for ‘noise’ you will see all the comments people have left.
This is such a great resource because people will not only discuss any problems they have with noise, but they will also say if the noise was minimal too! This is an absolute must-do before going away for any light sleeper.
If you’re already at a hotel and are hearing noise from the road or some excitable (or intimate!) guests next door, you still have a few options. The first is to talk to them, again I’ve got a few tips on the below.
This is not always the easiest thing to do, but I’ve found people are pretty friendly towards strangers. Your next option is to see if you can get a room change.
It’s kind of a coin flip, some hotels will be very accommodating and put you somewhere else straight away whereas others will just look at you grimly and tell you that’s not possible.
Also, make sure you’re taking some damn earplugs!
How to talk to people about their noise
Here’s a cold hard truth: people who get to sleep easily have no idea how painful it is when you get woken up by the smallest sound.
They also have little idea of how to regulate their own noise so they don’t wake you up. I’ve dealt with family, friends, strangers who all just don’t get it. As such, talking to these people about their noise is hard to get the results you want.
The first point is that you should talk to them. If they don’t know you’re suffering then they aren’t going to change what they’re doing. You might get lucky and they’ll stop making the noise in 5, 10 or 30 minutes.
They could also be doing the same thing until 7 am. (Memories of being kept up by my brother until my alarm clock went off at that time…ugh…)
First, make sure that it is not an unreasonable time. If they’re making noise and it’s stopping you from getting to bed at 9.30pm then you can’t really complain. If you want to go to sleep at this time then perhaps option 4 of moving somewhere quiet is where you need to be.
Second, try your best to be polite at first. Explain the situation, tell them you’re a very light sleeper and every bit of noise or music is meaning you’re unable to sleep and anything else that you think is relevant.
If this fails, talk to them again and again. If you want quick results then you may need to include a bit of annoyance or anger in your voice. Try to remain polite, however much you’d like to throw them out of a window, you don’t want to lose a friend just because they can’t stop kicking the floor every time they lose at Fortnite.
I used to spend hours in bed just hoping that whoever was making the noise would finish soon because I didn’t want the physical effort of having to get out of bed and dressed and the mental effort of having a touch conversation.
I’d spend hours sometimes just getting more and more resentful of the person making the noise without doing anything about it. Don’t do this, talk to them.