Debunking Sleep Myths: Can Counting Sheep Really Help You Fall Asleep?

This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation


Despite the popularity of this folk advice, sometimes counting sheep may do more to keep you awake than lull you to sleep. Learn the better way to think yourself to sleep.

A warm bath, a glass of milk. a good book, and counting sheep: These are the classic recommendations for fixing a case of nighttime tossing and turning, passed down from one generation to the next. But the question is, do they really work? When it comes to tallying up barnyard animals, there’s room for debate.

Sleep-Deprived Nation
Of course, people will try just about anything if they’re having trouble falling asleep—and that’s a lot of people. Roughly 30 percent of adults experience interrupted sleep. What’s more, 10 percent of Americans have symptoms of insomnia. With so many people missing out on shut-eye, it’s only natural that a few decide to give counting sheep a try.

Challenges of Winding Down
For some, a repetitive task like counting sheep can be soothing after a long, hectic day—these types of activities can help focus the mind and block out stressful thoughts. That alone might be the ticket to dreamland. But for many people, it can take between 10 and 20 minutes to drift off to sleep, and counting sheep for this duration can start to feel like a chore, not a stress reliever.

If you’re still struggling to fall asleep after 20 minutes of counting, it may mean you’re simply not tired enough or that you drank too much caffeine during the day. If you traveled recently, you might also be experiencing remnants of jet lag. A big meal, a hot room, or a fidgeting dog at the foot of your bed might also prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep.

The Case Against Sheep
There is absolutely no reason not to count sheep (or any other animal of your choosing) if picturing them helps you relax. But if you’re not sure it’s having the desired effect, know that some science points away from this trick: One study found that people who picture a calm setting like an open field or sunset on the beach were able to fall asleep faster than those who tried to count sheep. The next time you need a quick sleep solution, consider setting aside the counting trick and imagining a waterfall, mountainside, or other pretty scene first—you could be out cold with no sheep required.