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Counting sheep: Who came up with this old sleep tip and does it work?

Trying to imagine fat, fluffy white lambs jumping over a fence one by one is a well-known cure for insomnia. As I tried this, I occasionally tucked in an elegant black sheep with a red bow tie – a nod to my inner rebel.

I don’t suffer from insomnia often (thank goodness), but I’ve often wondered who came up with such a silly suggestion. When it comes to boring yourself to sleep, why not count backwards like you do when you’re under anesthesia? And who decided on sheep? Why not rabbits, horses, giant toads or kangaroos?

History supposedly provides the answer: It is said that one way for medieval shepherds, without human company for weeks, to fall asleep each night was to count their sheep until they were sleepy. I don’t know whether that’s true or not.

What is clear is that the concept of counting sheep to sleep is so old that it was mentioned in a 13th century short story collection called Cento Novelle Antiche. In one of the novellas, a storyteller in the service of Messer Azzolino was so sleepy that he told his master the story of a farmer who was trying to take a flock of sheep across a swollen river in a small boat.

“So he jumped in with a single fleece and began rowing with all his might,” said the storyteller. “The river was wide, but he rowed and he rowed away. …”

The storyteller stopped talking as he fell asleep, prompting his master to wake him up so he could finish telling the story.

“Let him get over the rest of the sheep, and then I will move on; “It will take him at least a year to do that, and in the meantime, Your Excellency can enjoy a very pleasant sleep,” replied the fabulist before dozing off again.

The same story was told in the earlier 12th-century work “Disciplina Clericalis” and even became part of the 17th-century book “Don Quixote” – except in this version, Quixote’s squire Sancho Panza tells him to have goats and don’t count sheep.

“You better keep an eye on how many goats the shepherd brings over, Your Grace, because if we forget even one, the story is over and we can’t say another word,” Panza tells him.

Does counting sheep work?

So does counting sheep really help you fall asleep? Search online and you’ll soon find stories about a 2002 study to combat insomnia that puts the concept to the test.

In reality, that’s not the point of the research, said lead author Allison Harvey, professor of psychology and director of the Golden Bear Sleep and Mood Research Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Our study more than 20 years ago wasn’t about counting sheep; “It was just about using images to combat insomnia,” said Harvey, who conducted the research as a professor of psychology at the University of Oxford.

Their research divided 50 people into three groups, Harvey said. The first had no instructions on how to fall asleep, while members of the second were encouraged to distract themselves from their thoughts, worries and troubles in every possible way. The third group was instructed to complete an interesting and exciting imagery task, such as creating or remembering a meadow, a waterfall, a holiday, or a summer afternoon in the sun.

Those who used images reported falling asleep much more quickly than the other two groups, and they rated their thoughts, worries and fears as less unpleasant and distressing than those in the distraction or no instruction groups.

Coincidentally, two of the study participants in the distraction group counted sheep to fall asleep, “and somehow people got into it, I guess because they thought it would be fun,” Harvey said.

Although she hasn’t really studied counting sheep as a way to overcome insomnia (and she isn’t aware of any other studies on the topic), Harvey still has an opinion based on her years as a sleep specialist.

“Something as mundane as counting sheep isn’t usually enough,” she said. “Instead, we work with people to create a menu of options because everyone is different and no one option will work every time.”

What works?

However, there are science-backed methods that can help you clear your mind and fall asleep. Even more than 20 years later, letting your imagination run wild is still a top tip, Harvey said. Here are her other recommendations.


Visualize relaxation: The idea of ​​a comfortable and engaging environment works for many people and is most successful when all five senses are involved.

“Try to make your image as vivid as possible by asking yourself what you see, what you hear, what you smell and, if so, what you taste,” she said.


Gratitude: Counting your blessings is known to increase happiness and is also a good way to relax and sleep, according to research.

Harvey suggests thinking of three things in your life that you are grateful for and then saying them to yourself before bed.


Enjoy: Enjoyment is about reliving a wonderful moment of the day. Remember what happened, how you felt, and enjoy those good feelings to promote sleep, Harvey said.

The next three suggestions are best done before your head hits the pillow. They all focus on controlling worry and rumination (chewing on repetitive thoughts, much like a cow chewing its cud).


Solve problems: Before bed, take the time to take a pen or pencil and draw two columns on a piece of paper. Label the top of one column “Concerns” and the other “Solutions.”

List your issues or worrisome tasks on the Concerns page and then brainstorm possible solutions. Once you put it down on paper, you can’t chew on it (so to speak).


Write a diary: Keeping a diary or journal doesn’t necessarily have to focus on problem solving, although it can, Harvey said. It can be a place to record blessings and everyday memories that you want to recall later – or just a way to express yourself.


Worry time: Not a writer by nature? Well, you can take a few hours before bed to simply worry and (hopefully) find solutions. If you do this, you can get it out of your head before your head hits the pillow, so you can fall asleep without counting sheep.

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