It’s often hailed as the classic way to hit the hay, but research suggests counting sheep has little impact on our ability to nod off
Many of us struggle when it comes to falling asleep. In fact, figures show that as many as 16 million UK adults suffer from regular sleepless nights.
We all have our own remedies for successfully getting to sleep, but one of the most well-known and classic suggestions is the counting sheep method. For those unfamiliar, this technique simply asks you to imagine an endless stream of sheep jumping over a fence. As each sheep goes past, you count it, until you find yourself drifting off.
Does counting sheep help you fall asleep?
The idea behind the counting sheep method is that it is rhythmic, repetitive and simple, but is this really enough to help you get to sleep? Studies have been conducted which look into the effectiveness of this method, the most famous of which took place in Oxford in 2001.
Research suggests not
Oxford University conducted their famous study on fifty participants who all suffered with insomnia. These participants were split into three groups.
The first group were asked to visualise tranquil scenes like waterfalls and fields as they tried to get to sleep. The second group (the study’s control group) were asked to go about their usual routine without thinking about anything in particular. The third group were asked to count sheep one after another as they jumped over a fence.
Results showed that those in the first group who pictured tranquil scenes were able to fall asleep twenty minutes faster than the control group on average. Meanwhile, those who were asked to count sheep actually took longer to fall asleep than those who simply went about their normal routine.
Researchers had several theories about why this might be. One possibility is that imagining peaceful nature scenes requires more mental energy and is more stimulating than counting sheep, making it easier to sustain. In other words, counting sheep may simply be too boring an activity to persevere with. They also theorised that expending greater mental energy by imagining tranquil landscapes may induce sleep faster.
More recent research into the counting sheep method has found similar results, with other researchers putting forward the argument that counting can actually increase anxiety about not being able to sleep. Once you start getting into double and triple figures of sheep, it can act as a reminder of just how long it is taking you to fall asleep.
How do you improve your sleep schedule?
Experts have suggested alternatives to the counting sheep method, such as walking your mind through a house or location you know really well. But preparing to fall asleep should begin long before you actually get into bed.
Factors like keeping your bedroom cool and dark, avoiding bright screens before bed, avoiding caffeine in the house before bedtime and enjoying some relaxing reading or meditation before going to sleep can all help to improve your relationship with sleep overall.
Set yourself a clear schedule which you can stick to, getting up and going to bed at roughly the same time every day. Over time, your body will begin to learn when it is time to start winding down, making sleep much easier.