Count sheep fall asleep?

We all heard it growing up, if you want to fall asleep quickly, count sheep. Usually, people picture sheep jumping over a fence, one by one, and this counting it supposed to soothe a person into a deep slumber. But does it actually work?


Well, the short answer is no. It doesn’t.

The phrase originated from a 12th century book of fables, Disciplina Clericalis. The book contains a chapter in which to get the king to fall asleep, a storyteller talks about sheep and the second he does, the storyteller himself falls asleep. In ancient times, Shepherds had to keep track of their flock by counting sheep constantly and it was thought to be such a boring task that it would put a person to sleep. Since then, the times have changed as well as the validity of this tactic. Scientists at Oxford University did a study in which 41 insomniacs were split into groups. Some were told to count sheep to fall asleep, some weren’t told to think of anything specifically and the others were told to picture a relaxing scene, such as a beach. They found that the people who pictured nothing or had to count sheep didn’t have any improvement in falling asleep, but the people told to picture a relaxing environment fell asleep much quicker than the others. There are a few flaws to this study, one being that you can’t actually make anyone picture or think about what you tell them to. You can give a person instructions but in this case, the scientists can’t be sure that the subject followed them. But the more I searched, the more I realized there was no evidence to counting sheep helping sleep and lots of evidence to imagery helping sleep. So this is odd, why is such a widely believed wives’ tale appear to be false? Perhaps it’s because counting sheep is such¬†a mundane task that people can’t do it for very long and the impulse to have to revert back to it keeps the mind occupied and therefore, unable to fall asleep. Michael Decker, Ph.D., thinks counting sheep may not work because keeping track of them is work. This work may stimulate the mind and in turn, make a person unable to fall asleep. Keeping the brain active while trying to fall asleep has proven more harmful than helpful.



So if counting sheep isn’t the way to do it then the question has to be asked, what does make a person fall asleep? Well, many suggest that imagining a calm scene helps a lot. But what else? Something most people do right before bed that can be a huge inhibitor of sleep is looking at a screen. Even more than counting sheep, a screen stimulates the brain and keeps it active, telling itself “there’s light, so it’s time to be up and awake!” Giving the body time before sleep with no screens or distractions is very helpful. Clinical psychologist, Janet Kennedy suggests taking a full hour before bed time to settle down the mind and body. This time is supposed to help the body transition from day to night.

It seems winding down the body and mind (picturing calming scenery, not looking at bright light) is the best way to ensure falling asleep but many people don’t have the luxury of time to wind down. Going from day to night quickly, light to no light, can be shocking to the body. Most modern humans have artificial light in their lives (their homes, offices, stores, etc.) and it triggers the mind to stay awake during biologically unnatural hours (humans are supposed to be asleep at night).¬†Turning lights off abruptly and ordering the body to rest may be a harsh way to get introduced into a night’s sleep. How does one fix this? Evidence suggests that practicing imagery and calming breathing exercises throughout the day actually helps one fall asleep at night. If a person can remain tranquil during the day, with light constantly surrounding them, the transition into the night and darkness is much easier. Our bodies are not as easily manipulated as we may think and sometimes we need to train ourselves into certain behaviors. Falling asleep is definitely one of these behaviors that many people need help with.

I may have gotten a little off topic there and of course, these tactics aren’t a way to always ensure a good night’s sleep. There are many confounding variables that can determine how well a person can fall asleep (ex. uncontrollable noise or light in the room one is trying to sleep in, physical pain at the time of sleep) but the integral concept remains. Keeping the mind active at night, even just the simple act of counting sheep, can really hinder sleep. The best way to prevent this is to give yourself time before falling asleep to relax and even stay relaxed throughout the day. Remember this when you just can’t seem to get to sleep!






6 thoughts on “Count sheep fall asleep?

  1. Anna Strahle

    I think this post was very helpful because since I was little falling asleep has not been one of my strengths. There were nights when I would only be asleep for around 2-3 hours, and I would lie there frustrated and exhausted. As I grew older my sleeping patters greatly improved, but there are still a few nights a month where my aggravating inconvenience reoccurs. I have looked into what helps people sleep many times and found many possible solutions: drinking tea, stretching/doing yoga before getting into bed, breathing exercises, or even something as crazy as putting lavender oil on my wrists. The remedy that I found most effective was regular exercise during the week. I played volleyball in the fall when I was in high school, and during the season I had no problem falling asleep. Unfortunately in college I am not on a sports team, but i try to go to the gym a frequent amount throughout the week, and it greatly benefits my sleeping schedule.
    Below is a study that proves that exercise helps you sleep:

  2. Valerie Lauren Murphy

    This is such a relevant post considering how an overwhelming number of college students don’t get enough sleep at night. Stress, homework, social media are just some of the reasons why falling asleep is nearly impossible. To eliminate the temptation to check my phone while in bed, I charge it on the opposite side of the room, screen side-down so the notification doesn’t project light in my dark room. I’ve found that if I do this, I’m not going to want to repeatedly get out of bed and walk across the room to check my phone. Even though the iPhone offers the ‘night-shift’ setting, the light from the screen is amplified when it’s contrasted by the darkness, causing me to have to squint and strain my eyes to see what it is I’m even reading. Getting rid of this distraction has definitely helped me fall asleep faster because I’m not tempted by the hundreds of e-mails, posts, and texts that flood my phone throughout the day.

  3. Caroline Sorrentino

    This was a great post! I like how you started with a question in the beginning. It helped me (and I’m sure the other readers) stay interested and keep on reading. Good job! I know I’ve heard a good tactic to fall asleep is to shut your phone, TV, etc. at least an hour before you plan on falling asleep. This article talks about why that is. Between being able to sleep better to focusing on falling asleep faster. I still have yet to try it but i really should!!

  4. Natalie Elizabeth Burns

    I really like this post, Molly! I especially liked how you went into the history of why this counting sheep method is a method at all. I also agree with you when you talk about the screens. I have heard so many things about you should get off your computer or phone before bed however, sometimes I find myself wanting to watch a movie or tv show in order to fall asleep. On the other hand, I do notice that my phone light can keep me from sleeping. I wonder what’s behind this because even when I watch movies on TV, I find myself sometimes drifting off. I wonder if something with the proximity of the light to someone’s eye? I feel like this would be something cool to look into as well!

  5. jgb5274

    When I was younger I was often told to “count sheep” to fall asleep because I always had trouble falling asleep. It never worked for me because I would just get caught up in counting numbers and it ended up just waking me up more than I already was. I never understood why I couldn’t fall asleep easily but I think it had to do with watching TV before bed. Here is an article I found about TV/ computers before bed and their effect. There are certain factors from it that can stimulate your brain and wake you up.

  6. vek5025

    I have also been told that counting backwards from 100 can help you fall asleep and usually you will not make it past 70. I can agree that it is difficult to have someone picture a serene scene in their mind, because I have listened to meditation tapes before where I was told to picture a relaxing atmosphere. For some reason, I always had difficulty finding a scene that was relaxing to me and I think that this is difficult, because a scene that is relaxing depends on the person and requires extreme focus. In your blog, you speak about exposure to light before sleep affecting sleep in a negative way. In addition to that, I found this article, which conducts an experiment on six humans and manipulates the type of light that they are exposed to while they sleep. Although the experiment was small, the data collected showed that humans require higher intensity light than other mammals for melatonin to decrease. This is interesting, because this might mean that humans have an evolutionary advantage while sleeping with light compared to other mammals.

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