Counting sheep has traditionally been used as a way of overcoming insomnia, with references dating back to more than 150 years ago. Normal advice is to picture a line of sheep jumping over a fence one by one keeping a tally as they go- but will this process really help you fall to sleep faster or is it just folklore?
Where did ‘Counting Sheep’ originate?
One theory is that the idea originated when early sheep herders couldn’t get to sleep at night because they were worried about all of the sheep in their field. They would relax by counting the herd up to make sure they were all safe.
Does this really work in a modern day situation with modern farmers?
An animal scientist, who works at the USDA’s Sheep Experiment Station and counts real sheep in day to day life, was asked whether the task induces sleepiness.
His response: “I tried counting sheep once when i couldn’t sleep and no, it didn’t help me fall asleep … It’s hard to imagine sheep jumping a fence because it’s not something they do unless you don’t want them to….”
What could work better?
Sleep scientists have discovered that imagining a pleasant and relaxing scene will help induce sleepiness better than counting sheep.
Harvey & Payne (2001) asked 50 insomniacs to try different distraction techniques on certain nights, to see which helped them fall asleep more quickly:
- Group 1– Asked to conjure up a tranquil and relaxing scene such as a waterfall or being on holiday
- Group 2– Asked to think of a distraction such as counting sheep
- Group 3– This group were left to their own devices
On average, those picturing a relaxing scene fell asleep over 20 minutes earlier than on nights they didn’t try the technique. Both the sheep-counters and the controls took slightly longer than normal to fall asleep on the nights of the experiment.
Ultimately, when looking for remedies the task you choose has to be effective for you. It needs to be something you find pleasant and relaxing. If counting sheep doesn’t work, a better idea might be to use your brain power to conjure up a relaxing scene, such as a lying on a sunny peaceful beach.