Sleeping with Headphones: Safety Risks, Benefits, and How-To


There’s an old saying: “Music soothes the savage b(r)east.” Science is starting to back that up, and to tie subjective sleep quality to the use of music at or just before sleeping.

In fact, one 2019 study that analyzed a number of other studies indicated that “the positive effects of listening to music on subjective ratings of sleep quality are well established across different age groups including both healthy participants and patients (Source).

It’s not just music, either. Many people enjoy listening to audiobooks, nature including thunderstorms (Source), or white noise (Source), which can be used to induce a meditative or sleep state or to mute a partner’s snoring, barking dogs, street sounds, and other noises.

Your best options for protecting hearing while enjoying music, nature sounds, or white noise while sleeping are using headphones (neither earbuds nor in-ears) and sleeping on your back. Alternatively you could wear sleep headbands or masks, utilize sleep timers (available on Android and iPhones), place speakers or white-noise machines near your bed, or use special pillows (e.g., pillow with an ear hole cut in it).

There are also products in development or already on the market, such as Kokoon headphones and Amazfit Zenbuds by biometrics company Huami, that measure health metrics related to sleep while you enjoy your favorite tunes!

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Let’s dive in and see how headphones differ from earphones, which headphones might be safest and most comfortable for sleeping, and how to get the best beats for your bucks.

Types of Headphones People Often Sleep with

Broadly speaking, audiophiles typically divide headphones into two categories: headphones (2 types) and earphones (2 types), which are sometimes called interaural headphones.

The two terms also flip-flop confusingly, as when the term in-ear headphones is used to refer to earphones of the two types.

Headphones

Headphones (wireless or with wires) are larger than earphones, so less portable, and they usually span the head, from ear to ear.

Headphones go on the ears, called supra-aural, or over the ears, called circum-aural (Source).

Some newer headphone types are headband type, such as the WINONLY Bluetooth headband and the mask type, which tend to look like giant sunglasses.

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Earphones

Earphones—both wireless (Bluetooth) and not—are usually further split into the two following categories:

  • Earbuds: These sit on the outer concha ridge of the ear, in the center of your outer ear (Source).
  • Canal phones: Canal phones are sometimes called just in-ears, in-ear monitors (IEMs), in-ear headphones, or ear canal headphones. These in-ear headphones feature ear tips with a range of sizes and are directly inserted into the ear canal (Source).

After deciding whether you want headphones or earphones, your next decision when buying headphones very well may be: Wired or wireless?

Each has its advantages, but many prefer to nap or sleep with wireless headphones or earphones to avoid entanglement, which carries a tiny risk of strangulation.

After you’ve made the wired versus wireless decision, you’ll want to think about what type of headphones will work best for your life. Questions you might ask yourself include:

  • Where/when/how do I want to use the headphones (e.g., for sleeping only, for gaming, for daytime use, for sports where they might get sweaty or be used outdoors in the elements)?
  • Do I need a microphone built into my headphones, as used in gaming or work?
  • How much am I able to pay for the headphones?
  • Do the headphones pair with apps, smartphones, or other devices and, if so, what other functions do they perform, such as noise cancellation?
  • What hearing protections do they offer?

How to Sleep With Headphones

It may seem impossible to sleep with headphones both comfortably and logistically, without breaking said headphones. But there are ways to achieve both.

Choose Your Pillow Wisely

First, you can work with different pillow types that support headphone use.

Travel pillows, for instance, not only support the neck if you take a catnap on a plane, but you can try them at home for short periods when you use your headphones or earphones.

For me, because I tend to tilt forward at the chin when I nap at home or in flight, I’m fascinated with the Bcozzy Pillow for travel.

Wirecutter champions the Bcozzy as its best travel pillow specifically for large headphones (Source), although it’s not the best pillow for side-to-side neck support without “chunky” headphones.

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A little later, I’ll discuss another pillow type that can be repurposed for headphone use: Pillows for earaches.

Select Ear- or Headphones Tailored for Sleep

I’ve found three primary “types” of earphones or headphones specially designed to not jab or discomfort you during napping or longer-term rest.

Headband or Mask Headphones

As their name implies, the headband headphone, which will be discussed in depth later, winds around your forehead, not unlike Rambo’s bandanna.

Mask headphones slip down over your eyes, so they tend to also black-out light, which, along with pleasant soundscapes, helps many who struggle with good or restorative sleep.

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Low-profile Earphones or Flattened Headphones

Manufacturers are keen to sell to insomniacs everywhere by providing supportive low-profile earbuds that don’t jut out and, thus, present a hazard of poking or scratching the eardrum or outer ear.

Fully Wireless Earphones

Bluetooth wireless earbuds or earphones are an option for some people, especially those who aren’t likely to sleep restlessly and have them pop out. These types don’t have a long battery life as of this writing, but I kind of view that as a good thing. Even if you have the music too loud for hearing health, the battery typically dies before 7 or 8 hours of exposure.

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But again, set a sleep timer and/or keep the decibels well under 85 with any of these headphone or earphone types.

Consider Teaching Yourself to Back-Sleep

As long as sleep apnea or snoring are not issues, perhaps you could consider back-sleeping if you’d like to keep your headphones (or earphones) on? This way, the devices themselves are not getting crushed, nor are your ears in danger of pokes, perforations, or discomfort from those devices.

For back sleepers we recommend:

Advantages to Sleeping with Headphones

Music is a Drug-Free Self-Help Tool

Music or white noise long has been used as a nonpharmaceutical, less-expensive intervention. Athletes and visionaries alike use music to buttress their self-care and motivate them toward goals and resolutions.

There are worse ideas than letting oneself drift to sleep on the wings of music or white noise. After all, in the womb we were all lulled by our mother’s heartbeat and movements or voices.

Music = pain reduction, anxiety relief, dementia care

Music therapy or music as self-help addresses anxiety and pain reduction (Source) or depression (Source), PTSD, dementia-related agitation (Source), and sleep disorders (which themselves can link to anxiety and depression).

Music could address depression-related insomnia

As of this writing, a study trial is underway exploring music to boost sleep quality in adults with depression-related insomnia as well (Source).

Music eases stress, blocks aggravating noise

In other studies, music is widely used as a stress-relieving sleep hygiene tool across several age groups. In one, “62% of respondents stated that they used music to help them sleep. They reported fourteen musical genres comprising 545 artists” (Source).

Not only does music soothe away aches and pains, but it quite literally can be used to mask or to block out unpleasant sounds. If your partner talks or snores in their sleep, your neighbors are unruly, or if you live near train tracks, my heart goes out to you. Headphones or earphones may ensure better sleep health in those difficult circumstances.

Disadvantages of Sleeping with Headphones

Now that you know what to look for—or in the case that you already have your earphones or headphones—you need to know how to protect your hearing and a couple other issues you should make yourself aware of so you’ll have safe use over a lifetime of partaking of music or the audible arts.

Possible Hearing Loss

Music is a lifesaver for me—and many others. But, at the same time, I don’t want you to experience irreversible hearing loss.

In my mid-30s, I began to lose significant amounts of hearing, such that my family noticed and asked me to get tested. If you ever have a sudden loss of hearing, please see your medical provider right away!

At about that time, I got a terrible jolt: “You’ll need hearing aids” dropped from the audiologist’s mouth not unlike a bomb.

If you’re lucky, you can preserve your precious hearing well beyond your 30s.

But you’ve got to use your earphones and headphones wisely to enjoy many more years of music—not to mention hearing your family and friends or favorite television and movies without closed-captioning (even with hearing aids, some of us need close-captioning).

So, what are some key things to remember with regard to sleeping while using headphones?

  • Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) through hair-cell and nerve damage has increased in recent years due to occupational exposures to noise (as in aviation, construction, or mowing/landscaping) and “social noise exposure” through personal headphone devices and loud event-based exposures (e.g., concerts, sports venues) (Source).
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) or persistent unexplained headaches can be early red flags for hearing loss.
  • Permanent damage to hair-like cells, which cover the cochlea, “begins at 85 decibels.” The hair-like cells convert sounds into electrical impulses and transmit them to the brain through the auditory nerve. Excessively loud sounds, especially over long periods of time, destroy these “hairs” (Source and Source)!
  • If previously loud sounds no longer seem as loud to you, please see your medical provider right away. Likewise, if you have sudden or dramatic hearing loss.
  • Time of sound exposure, decibel level, and your distance from sound origination are important factors in NIHL.

For all these reasons (and more to be covered shortly), we do not recommend sleeping with earphones (in-canal or earbuds).

No matter what option you choose, if you decide to use headphones, earphones, or mask/headband wearables to sleep, keep the volume at safe levels: If people in the room can hear sounds escaping from your headphones or earphones, most likely they are way too loud.

(Source)

Also, give your ears some recovery time. So, don’t wear headphones or earphones of any type for every sleep session, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And never max out the sound if you want to exercise the most caution.

Once those hair cells are damaged, with current medical intervention, they cannot be revived. In other words, NIHL is permanent.

Otitis Externa

Improper use of in-ear headphones—earphones such as in-canal and earbuds—is a risk factor for otitis externa, popularly called swimmer’s ear.

Bacteria, however, are more commonly implicated in this condition.

Otitis externa “is an infection in the outer ear canal, which runs from your eardrum to the outside of your head” (Source).

Earbuds and in-canal headphones, if worn for long periods and regularly, can create a moist environment promoting bacterial growth.

The dangers of otitis externa heighten as it progresses from mild symptoms such as redness or itching to intense itching, discharge, and pain as well as decreased hearing.

Advanced progression may present in fever, complete ear canal blockage, and severe pain that could radiate to your face, neck, or the side of your head (Source).

A rare, extreme complication of otitis externa is advanced skull base osteomyelitis, wherein the brain or other nerves can be compromised.

Use your headphones or earphones wisely, and discuss any ear pain or discharge with your physician right away!

Earphones Can Block out Sounds of Emergencies

If you’re a parent or a caregiver, don’t have a bed partner who can listen for emergency alarms, or need to be aware of your surroundings, in-ear headphones are not your safest sleeping option.

Even if you want to be able to hear your dog if s/he needs to go outside for a bathroom break, you might like to avoid earphones or headphones—or limit their use to those few time a week when no other relaxation or stress relief than sound helps.

Choosing the Best Headphones/Earphones for Sleep

Wireless earphones are the go-to for some people who’ve got to have music, white noise, or nature sounds to sleep.

Maybe they don’t want speakers or other options because they need to block out traffic or other noises as effectively as possible. Perhaps the stress-relieving properties of sound are the only solution to their insomnia.

Once medical issues have been ruled out with your medical provider in the case of sleep or mood issues, you might like to consider the gold standard of sleep audio: earphones, both wireless and wired.

Many sleep sufferers have flocked to wireless earphones with moldable earpieces and other figurative bells and whistles. Bose tends to stand head and shoulders above other companies with regard to amplification and audio, and this is true for wireless headphones, too.

For instance, Bose’s QuietComfort noise-cancelling, Bluetooth earbuds are likely to satisfy discerning audiophiles and soothe any restless or stressed sleepers.

Remember that a headphone or earphone that’s good for exercise (i.e., resists damage from sweat or outdoor conditions or dangerous entanglement during motion) might not be the best choice for indoor daytime or night-time applications.

If you’re using headphones (or earphones) exclusively for sleep, you’ll want to ensure they fit well and comfortably, don’t fall out or become entangled, allow you to hear emergencies, and don’t get excessively loud (85 decibels and above during the day or night is the general cut-off for hearing health).

Alternatives to Sleeping with Headphones

Special Pillows Allow Side-Sleep with ‘Phones

Pillows originally designed for ear pain, which usually feature a cut-out in the center, can be used for headphones or earphone side-sleeping. If wired, be sure that the wires pass through the center of the pillow to help prevent tangling. Here’s one such pillow I like to think as a rectangular donut:

In-Pillow Speakers

You might also experiment with in-pillow speakers. These seem to carry the potential for discomfort and other problems but the potential for protecting your hearing health while delivering pleasing sounds.

But—no pun intended—we’d love to hear your experiences with in-pillow amplification, either pro or con, if you’d like to share them.

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White Noise Machines

If you’re like me, you can’t tolerate either complete silence or intermittent, random noises at night.

But maybe you don’t want the potential for breakage, tangling, discomfort, or health/emergency risk of wearing in- or on-ear audio.

In that case, perhaps white noise machines can fill the void left by no or startling non-continuous noise (like the click-click-click of an upstairs neighbor’s dog pacing or racing at 2:20 a.m.).

I’ve had a really simple, compact, and affordable ‘LectroFan model by Adaptive Sound Technologies for probably 8 months now and have only good things to say about it.

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I used to have it closer to my head, but now I situate it about 8 feet away atop the dresser.

The only drawback I can see with such machines actually is based on their efficacy: You might come to depend on it so much, you’ll be unable to sleep if you don’t take it with you on vacation or forget to turn it on occasionally.

How to Clean your Headphones After Sleeping with them

Be sure to retain AND follow any instructions that came with the device. But, in a nutshell, to clean earbuds or in-canal earphones:

  1. NEVER clean earbuds while they are still connected to a smartphone or other device.
  2. If you use earbuds daily, at least swipe with an alcohol wipe or microfiber cloth weekly (Source).
  3. Deeper cleans should be done monthly—more often with daily, heavy use.
  4. Gather a wipe or microfiber cloth, toothbrush, cotton swabs, gentle dishwashing liquid, and isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol (if not using a wipe).
  5. Pop off foam or silicone tips and clean them according to these instructions (Source).
  6. Use the toothbrush bristles to remove earwax, holding the earbuds’ mesh downward so gravity takes over and the debris falls out into a trash can.
  7. Put the isopropyl alcohol on the cotton swab, but don’t saturate it. Rub it over the mesh to disinfect. Don’t let any moisture dribble down into the earbuds’ workings (that’s why it should not be dripping wet!).
  8. Douse the microfiber cloth in alcohol to wipe the earbuds’ outer surface for cleaning and disinfection. Alternatively, use the alcohol-based wipe for this. If the earbuds are corded, you can use the cloth or wipe to clean the cords.
  9. Allow the earbuds at least 15 minutes to air-dry, away from light and heat, before using them or putting them in a case.

For over-the-ear or on-ear headphones, also apply any cleaning recommendations included in the instruction manual.

The wires of headphones (or earphones) of course also should never be submerged in water of any kind.

Cleaning headphones can be trickier, but they are a little less likely to harbor bacteria and earwax because they aren’t inserted into the ear. Nonetheless, please don’t share headphones—even with your best buds!

FAQ

How to Sleep with Headphones Without Breaking Them?

Earbuds or earphones are the most likely to NOT BREAK during sleep because of their compactness, especially if they are completely wireless.

Even so, wires can become dislodged, clogged by sweat, and so on.

Several audiophile sources I consulted either avoided the breakage issue completely or recommended getting either wireless earbuds or earphones, avoiding headphones altogether, and if you must use wires, getting cheap earbuds/earphones so that if they do break, you are not experiencing that great a monetary loss.

Other sources recommend sleeping with the phone or device above your head (as in a headboard) so that they don’t become tangled and break.

Can Sleeping with Headphones Kill or Choke You?

Are you an extremely active sleeper, do you have narcolepsy or other sleep conditions, or are you looking to give headphones to a child?

In those cases, I’d recommend staying away from anything on or in the ears at night.

If you’re using headphones that are sized well and proportionally to you and you don’t have the aforementioned health risks or demographics, then it is highly unlikely you would not awaken if entangled in headphones, much less die by self-asphyxiation or choking. “Headphones strangulation” retrieves zero case reports from the leading medical database, PubMed (Source).

That said, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Be cautious about nighttime headphone or earphone use, and never let a small child play with headphones or earphones, especially wireless earbuds, due to choking, strangulation, or swallowing risks.

Always put them away in a case and store that case safely out of reach if you live with a toddler, young child, or curious pet.

Summary

Music, we feel, is highly beneficial to life. It has tried and true-toned health benefits such as improving mood; boosting positive subjective feelings when used to aid sleep; generating calm; reducing pain; relieving stress (Source); and decreasing the agitation seen in dementia.

Soundscapes of pleasant or relaxing sounds (such as rain or ocean waves), white noise, and music can be used to ameliorate conditions of PTSD in refugees (Source), traumatic brain injury and/or PTSD in veterans (Source), or other mental health issues such as schizophrenia or depression (Source).

Sleeping with headphones is an individual choice, and only you can decide whether you want headphones or earphones, white-noise machines, earplugs, or simply meditation music or audiobooks about 45 minutes prior to sleep.

Sweet dreams!

Author:

  • Leigh Smith is a former English major and daily news copyeditor. She has edited or proofread hundreds of medical journal articles in dentistry, radiology, neurology, et al--or edited/proofread college-level texts in medical coding, nursing, and child death including from SIDS. When not writing or editing, she focuses on coffee and sweets, family, Indian food, jogging, infectious diseases, and collecting rocks (not in order of preference). Find her on rare occasions blogging at Leigh's Wordsmithery or tweeting at @1WomanWordsmith.

Leigh Smith

Leigh Smith is a former English major and daily news copyeditor. She has edited or proofread hundreds of medical journal articles in dentistry, radiology, neurology, et al--or edited/proofread college-level texts in medical coding, nursing, and child death including from SIDS. When not writing or editing, she focuses on coffee and sweets, family, Indian food, jogging, infectious diseases, and collecting rocks (not in order of preference). Find her on rare occasions blogging at Leigh's Wordsmithery or tweeting at @1WomanWordsmith.

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