5 Reasons Why Counting Sheep For Sleep Will Never Work For Me

Who hasn’t heard the advice about counting sheep for sleep?A Sheep Jumps Over a Wall With Another Sheep Just Behind Him

It’s something that seems to have been passed down from generation to generation. A mental exercise that we are all familiar with, but have probably never tried.

It’s weird how literally anybody you ask will know about the old “sheep trick” for sleepless nights, although they may not be able to even tell you where they first heard it.

I’m no different – I have known about sheep counting ever since I was a youngster, but I have absolutely no idea where it came from.

Did I read it in a bedtime story?

Is this something my parents introduced to me?

Perhaps I was taught this method at school.

Who knows?

I can’t remember.

However, one thing I know for sure (that’s not strictly true) is that counting sheep will never work for me and I would like to explain why (I do feel ever so slightly hypocritical now, as I’ve never actually attempted it).

1. No-One Can Tell Me Where This Originated From

I am a person who likes to deal in facts.

From my research into why counting sheep may help to aid sleep, I am left somewhat confused.

It appears that no-one can actually pinpoint where this method of inducing sleep actually came from.

Firstly, there’s the theory that sheep herders from many years gone by were unable to sleep at night until they knew all the sheep in their field were accounted for and safe.

Therefore, in order to ease their minds they would soothe themselves by counting their sheep and apparently this would send them off to the Land of Nod.

Hmm, sounds suspicious to me.

Then there are 3 separate pieces of literature that appear to hold the key.

We have the 12th century Spanish work, Disciplina Clericalis, which refers to counting sheep in a humorous manner. However, it appears that this work draws on sources of literature from the ancient Islamic world, well before the 12th century.

Then we have the 1605 Miguel de Cervantes classic, Don Quixote, which references “keeping count of goats”. Although, it is theorized that Cervantes probably adapted his story from Disciplina Clericalis.

Finally, we are led to believe that Harriet Martineau spoke of counting sheep in order to attain sleep in Illustrations of Political Economy in 1832.

I would quote Harriet’s reference for counting sheep to you, but unfortunately I found it so boring I almost did actually fall asleep (if you really are that interested please, be my guest and have a look, but I warn you, you’ll regret it).

Anyway, the very fact that the original source of where sheep counting came from is disturbing to me.

If I don’t know the Why, then it’s not something I’m willing to try.

2. Oxford University Tells Me It Doesn’t Work

I guess sticking with the factual theme, there has actually been an experiment conducted into counting sheep – now there’s something I thought I’d never write.

But, alas yes.

Researchers have spent valuable time (and potentially money), in one of the greatest universities in the world, for some much-needed lamb, ram and ewe calculations.

Anyhow, I digress.

So, the experiment took place in 2001 and was conducted on 50 insomniacs.

They were split into 3 separate groups.

Group 1 were told to imagine a calming and tranquil scene while trying to fall asleep, such as a waterfall or a beach.

Group 2 were to make no changes whatsoever to their normal sleep routine.

Group 3 happened to be the counting sheep group.

Obviously, there were no changes for group 2, as they didn’t do anything different from usual.

However, the group that visualized the waterfall or beach scene typically fell asleep 20 minutes faster than they did when left to their own devices.

The group that were counting sheep actually took longer than normal to fall asleep.

The theory behind the most successful sleeping group is two-fold.

Firstly, some believe it is because they were using more mental energy, which made them become tired quicker, thus falling asleep 20 minutes faster than usual.

Then there are those who believe that imagining a tranquil scene is far easier to stick with and far more interesting than say counting sheep.

As far as I’m concerned they’re onto something with the use of calming and tranquil scenes to aid sleep and I’ll get to that in a moment,

3. Counting Sheep Will Always Remind Me of Mr. Bean

I’ve been honest enough to say that I do feel ever so slightly hypocritical about being against sheep counting at bedtime, as I’ve never actually tried it myself.

But, I don’t think I ever can now, as it will always make me laugh.

I am now forever reminded of Rowan Atkinson’s character, Mr. Bean, and his attempt at trying to overcome insomnia by (eventually) counting sheep.

Unfortunately, trying this method will just make me giggle now, and I’m pretty sure laughing to myself at night is probably not conducive to sleep.

I won’t spoil it for you anymore – Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Mr. Bean.

4. It Would Stress Me Out

Just returning to the Oxford University study above, there were a number of theories as to why the counting sheep group took longer to fall asleep.

These mainly fell into the category of the actual act being boring, whereas some people might even get anxious with sheep counting.

I totally get that.

Now by saying that something is boring you would think that this actually helps you to fall asleep.

I know only too well from personal experience that say, sitting in lectures, or meetings, or even listening to someone rambling on incoherently that I have often felt ready to drop off.

You know what I mean – you’re eyes glaze over, you then feel your eyelids getting heavier, hardly able to keep them open. Then you suddenly jerk your head or your body as you’re about to fall asleep, and manage to wake yourself up.

Hopefully no-one noticed.

In these situations you are doing everything you can to stay awake and for some reason this feels like the hardest thing ever.

However, I would say that the opposite is true when you’re actually trying to sleep.

If I was to count sheep while laying in bed I know without doubt I would start to get bored very quickly, in fact I would find it extremely annoying, and I believe that eventually it would stress me out.

And if there’s one thing that will stop you from sleeping, I can guarantee it’s stress.

How many of us have difficulties in falling asleep on a nightly basis because we’re worried or anxious about something?

You simply can’t turn off that overactive mind and you end up getting more and more wound up.

Sorry, I know counting sheep will have this exact same effect on me, and therefore it would never work.

5. I Try Not to Think About Anything When I Get Into Bed

I find the results very interesting for the first group in the Oxford University study I mentioned above.

This goes against everything I have learned when it comes to trying to fall asleep, although it does actually make a lot of Man Relaxes On The Bank Of A River While Reading A Booksense to me.

If you’re thinking happy and calming thoughts this should help to relax the mind, which as we know is exactly what’s needed for us to fall asleep.

In fact, happy memories and moments that make us feel good inside could have exactly the same effect.

However, from my research into my own sleeping problems, I typically found that relaxing and calming my mind worked better before I actually got into bed.

I have a short routine that I perform every night before I go to bed.

  • I will turn off all electronics one hour before I get into bed.
  • Then I read a physical book for about 20-30 minutes (yes they still exist), nothing too taxing.
  • I spend no longer than 10 minutes meditating or listening to a mindfulness audio.
  • Then I write in a gratitude journal about 3-5 things that I was grateful for that day.
  • And then it’s time to make my way to bed.

By the time I have gone through this simple process I actually feel quite calm and relaxed and my mind has usually quietened down.

So, realistically the last thing I want to do is fire up the old grey matter again by counting sheep.

As I say, I hadn’t really considered the waterfall or beach scenario before, but it’s something I’m willing to try if I ever do struggle with sleep again.

Final Thoughts

I think I’m going to put counting sheep in order to fall asleep into the old wive’s tale category.

It’s hard to believe that a method that is so well-known, by so many people, and yet we’re unable to 100% pinpoint its origins.

For me, counting sheep is never going to help me get some zzz’s and I think I’ll stick to the formula that I know works for me.

What about you?

Have you heard of the counting sheep method before?

Have you tried it?

Did it work?

I love to hear from you in the comments section below, but until then Happy Sleeping.

12 thoughts on “5 Reasons Why Counting Sheep For Sleep Will Never Work For Me”

  1. Thank you so much for this fascinating article, Partha! I too have always heard that counting sheep was a good way to fall asleep, but it has never worked for me (I have tried a few time). For me, I always end my night with a prayer, reading several Bible scriptures, listening to some calming music, and watching a funny/entertaining video before bed. This routine puts me in my “happy place,” and before I know it, I’m off in la-la land. I also like to know the source of someone’s conclusions, and if it just doesn’t add up, I too become suspicious. Haha Great read! God bless you!

    Reply
    • Hi C.N.

      I’m glad to hear that you have a bedtime routine that works for you.

      Although I wouldn’t normally suggest watching anything on a screen just prior to bedtime.

      However, your example shows how different we all are as individuals. What works for you, may not work for someone else, and vice versa.

      I guess it’s about finding a happy medium.

      Thanks
      Partha

      Reply
  2. Hi
    This is an interesting topic with hidden depths. In your research, you must have come across the Yan Tan Tethera system which was used by sheepherders in Northern England until the early 20th century. It was also popular with knitting as a way of keeping track of stitches. I remember hearing people counting this way when I was young. Youtube has videos of people counting and singing. I hope you will agree the sound is melodic and very charming. I am sure this has much to do with the origins of – counting sheep to fall asleep. So, I don’t agree with the science!!!
    Best regards
    Andy

    Reply
    • Hi Andy,

      Great to hear from you.

      Yes, I’ve come across the Yan Tan Tethera before. for both the counting of sheep and counting stitches.

      But no, I must admit I haven’t heard the counting and singing before.

      I shall go and check it out right now on YouTube, as you’ve whetted my appetite to find out more.

      Thanks
      Partha

      Reply
  3. Very Interesting article. I have actually tried this before and it actually kept me more awake than it did asleep. I think the concentration of thinking “is it working” mixed with counting kept me awake.

    Reply
    • Hi Russ,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Yes, that’s very much the same as me.

      I’m not quite sure how “activating” the brain in some way is going to help me sleep. Each to their own I suppose.

      Thanks
      Partha

      Reply
  4. Hi there,

    This is a very interesting article. I’ve argued with my cousins about counting sheep for sleep since I was a child. One of them told me that it can help you to sleep easily, but I’m not. At that time I’ve tried not to think about anything that is the main key to make me sleep. It sounds a super joke to me when I realize those moments.

    Thanks and all the best,
    Kumponchai

    Reply
    • Hi Kumponchai,

      Thank you for comments.

      I agree it’s best to TRY and think about nothing when we’re trying to sleep, but I’m sure that’s easier said than done.

      In fact, I discuss some of these issues in my article about how to shut your brain off and sleep.

      Thanks
      Partha

      Reply
  5. Hi Partha,

    It’s interesting that the origins of this well-known concept aren’t traceable. I have tried it a few times, but my mind always drifts off, so it doesn’t end up working. What I typically do is turn on a guided meditation to calm my mind, if that doesn’t work, I put on something to watch, a Ted Talk or similar as it’s not too action-based, and that eventually does the trick.

    The video of Mr. Bean is hilarious, I forgot that episode even existed.

    Great article BTW!

    Best wishes,
    Sharon

    Reply
  6. I think you are right-everyone has heard about it. I have heard about the different theories of its origin, as well. I doubt, however, that it can actually work. “Counting sheep” for a long time is actually counterproductive when it comes to sleeping. I myself do not usually have sleeping problems, but those once or twice I had, I got up after not more than twenty minutes. I always have a book by my bed which I could read for a while, before I went back to bed to try again and actually fall asleep.
    I make sure I sleep in a pleasant environment, in a not too warm or too cold room, at a comfortable bed with a good mattress, with not too much noise, nor light on. I completely agree on turning off all devices long before going to bed. Anything that can relax your mind enough to easily fall asleep. Very well put together article. Oh, and thanks for Mr. Bean, it really made me laugh.

    Reply
    • Hi Minaher,

      It sounds to me like you have a really good sleeping routine, so I’m not surprised you don’t usually have sleeping problems. Great job.

      Thank you for your kind comments and glad you enjoyed Mr. Bean.

      Thanks
      Partha

      Reply

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