Does Counting Sheep Put a Person to Sleep?

When it comes to having trouble falling asleep, people the world overall have their remedies for drifting off. Some swear by a glass of milk while others count sheep. For those of you not familiar with the counting sheep method, know that it does not require real sheep. It is a mental exercise used in some cultures to put you to sleep.

In most versions of the sheep sleep aid, people are told to imagine an endless stream of white sheep jumping over a fence, counting each as they go. The theory behind the counting sheep exercise is that the simple, rhythmic, and repetitive nature of the visualization helps people sleep. But does counting sheep actually put a person to sleep?

woman with insomnia
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Counting Sheep for Falling Asleep

Those who've pondered the question are not alone. In fact, to answer the question of whether counting sheep would help people with insomnia fall asleep faster, researchers at Oxford University found people who had trouble falling asleep and monitored them as they tried one of three different techniques. One of the techniques was counting sheep.

The Counting Sheep Sleep Study

The 2002 Oxford University study split 41 insomniacs into three random groups. One group was asked to visualize calming and tranquil scenes like waterfalls when attempting to fall asleep. Another group was asked to simply go about their normal routine, a practice that would act as the study's control group. The last group was asked to count imaginary sheep as they jumped over a fence one by one.

Sleep Study Results and Theories

Researchers found that those in the first group who were imagining tranquil scenes got to sleep approximately 20 minutes faster than they did on other, non-experimental nights, whereas insomniacs in the group that had to count sheep took longer than usual to fall asleep. While there were no tested reasons for this discrepancy, the researchers have multiple theories.

First, the researchers believed that the act of visualizing a tranquil, but engaging scene requires more mental energy than repeatedly counting imaginary sheep. The increased expenditure of mental energy of the visualized scene may have helped induce sleep faster.

Another theory was that the tranquil scene method may have simply been easier to stick with as it is objectively a more interesting visualization activity. In the end, it may be that counting sheep is simply too boring to do for an extended period of time. Imagine counting up to the 200th sheep!

Researchers also theorized that the act of counting sheep may also add to anxiety for some, making falling asleep that much more difficult. Though the sample size of the study was indeed small, the results certainly still call this common sleep method into question.

How to Actually Fall Asleep

Though counting sheep has become a pervasive symbol for both insomnia and sleep in Western culture, it appears to mainly be a myth for most. If you have the same experience as the participants in the study, counting sheep doesn't actually put you to sleep,

1 Source
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  1. Harvey AG, Payne S. The management of unwanted pre-sleep thoughts in insomnia: distraction with imagery versus general distraction. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 2002;40(3):267-277. doi: 10.1016/S0005-7967(01)00012-2

Additional Reading
  • Harvey, Allison G., and Suzanna Payne. 2002. “The management of unwanted pre-sleep thoughts in insomnia: distraction with imagery versus general distraction.” Behaviour Research and Therapy. 40 (3): 267-277.

By Mark Stibich, PhD
Mark Stibich, PhD, FIDSA, is a behavior change expert with experience helping individuals make lasting lifestyle improvements.