Who hasn’t heard the advice about counting sheep for sleep?
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.
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 sense 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.
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.