Part of our series on getting better sleep.
The science is clear: using noise-dampening devices can absolutely help you sleep better.1Earplugs improve patients’ subjective experience of sleep in critical care2Effects of earplugs and eye masks on nocturnal sleep, melatonin and cortisol in a simulated intensive care unit environment While earplugs are the most popular option for this, some people prefer a comfy pair of sleeping ear muffs.
But what kinds of sleep ear muffs work best?
First, it’s best to understand why earplugs and ear muffs for sleeping can improve sleep quality.
It’s not that ear muffs for sleeping can block out all sound. You can still mostly hear someone when they talk to you, for example. Rather, sleeping ear muffs help reduce noises closer to the baseline level of noise in the room, whether that’s silence or white noise (for example, from a fan).
The closer a noise is to the baseline noise level, the more likely the brain is to ignore it. (See our guide on earplugs for sleep for a more thorough explanation.)
So ear muffs for sleeping theoretically can improve sleep quality, but how well do they do in practice?
Silence vs. Slim Design
The most limiting factor when it comes to designing sleeping ear muffs is comfort.
There are a whole lot of noise-cancelling headphones on the market, but they tend to be a little bulky. If you ever sleep on your side, you don’t want an onion-sized bulge lifting your head off your pillow.
Because of this, ear muffs for sleeping need to be thin and comfortable. That means a little compromise has to be made when it comes to soundproofing.
If you’re used to sporting a nice pair of noise-cancelling headphones, don’t expect completely soundproof ear muffs. Noise-cancelling headphones are prone to feedback (that loud, high-pitched ringing) when something touches the microphone. Nobody wants to be woken up by a screaming pillow!
Luckily, if you find that your sleeping ear muffs aren’t as quiet as you’d like, you can add a pair of sleeping earplugs underneath. Although this doesn’t simply double the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR), it does add an extra layer of sound dampening. You can check out our sleeping earplugs guide for some recommendations.
There’s another tool that can help with deeper sleep even more: white noise. As explained above, listening to white noise helps the brain ignore other sounds.
Conveniently, many earmuffs for sleeping feature headphones for playing noise or music. If you chose a pair that doesn’t have headphones, you can just pick up a white noise machine instead.
For the absolute best noise reduction and improved sleep quality, you can combine all three options. Try a pair of earplugs under a pair of ear muffs with a white noise machine nearby—that’s a surefire ticket to dreamland.
Because lights can also hurt your sleep,3Let there be no light: the effect of bedside light on sleep quality and background electroencephalographic rhythms you may consider throwing a sleep face mask into the mix if you don’t opt for an ear muff sleep mask combo.
Types of Sleeping Ear Muffs
Here’s a breakdown of some common sleeping ear muffs, including some heavy-duty options. Read below to see which type will work best for you.
Basic Ear Muffs for Sleeping
Most wraparound-style face masks offer some basic noise dampening. Depending on the material, these masks can help reduce the amount of sound that makes it into the ear.
Bear in mind that these are some of the most basic and least sound-dampening options for sleeping ear muffs. If you go with these, you’ll almost definitely want a pair of sleeping earplugs underneath.
Sleep Mask + Ears Muffs Combos
If you want some options with a little more sound-cancelling capability, sleeping ear muffs with headphones are a great option.
Ear Muff Headphones
Most sleeping ear muffs won’t feature active noise cancelling, as mentioned above. But ear muffs with headphones are the next best thing! These typically feature slim, comfortable speakers that sit on either side of a sleep mask.
As discussed above, playing white noise can help improve sleep quality. Wearing sleeping ear muffs with headphones is one of the easiest ways to do this without picking up a white noise machine or killing your phone battery at night.
Just hook up a pair to your phone and use your preferred white noise app to enter your personal soothing soundscape. Most ear muffs for sleep feature Bluetooth connectivity to avoid the tangle of cables, but there are wired options as well.
Ears Muffs + Headphones Combos
If white noise just doesn’t cut it for you, all-out noise-cancelling headphones might work for you. But you need to know the pros and cons first.
Most noise cancelling headphones use microphones to “cancel out” external noises. This results in a stronger sound dampening effect than many other options.
The downside, as mentioned above, is that pressing anything against the microphone usually results in feedback—that high-pitched ringing. That means you can’t really sleep on your side.
There are plenty of noise dampening headphones that don’t use active noise cancelling. This means you won’t get feedback. However, they still suffer from a similar issue: they tend to be bulky enough that you can’t sleep on your side.
If you sleep on your back, neither of these should be an issue for you. As long as you don’t tend to turn to your side in your sleep, you should be able to use sound dampening or active noise-cancelling headphones.
There is a solution for side sleepers: a pillow with a hole! You can try to match up any sort of donut pillow with the size of your headphones. It may seem like a hassle, but if you’re having a lot of trouble sleeping well, desperate times may call for desperate measures.
Pillows for Headphones
If you want as much soundproofing as possible for the deepest sleep you can get, try the following:
- A pair of active noise cancelling headphones
- A white noise app for the headphones
- A pair of sleeping earplugs with a high Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)
- A sleep mask to block out any pesky lights
- Optionally, an additional fan or white noise machine
It’s like being in your own little sensory-deprivation cocoon. You’ll put the sandman out of business!