Counting Sheep: Why Do We Do It?

small toy sheep stuffed animals

One sheep, two sheep, three sheep, four. Sleep hasn't come; let me count some more. Five sheep, six sheep, seven sheep, eight. The sleep I'll have will not be great.

Counting sheep: many of us do it while others need no part of it to sleep. their sleep comes swiftly and blissfully. But for those of us that need to do it to fall asleep, the question is why, and does it actually help?


The oldest European fables book, the Disciplina Clericalis by Petrus Alphonsi, suggested that counting sheep was an Islamic tradition. Medieval Britain had many shepherds, and for the shepherds, counting sheep – which went 'yan, tan, tethera' – before you slept at night was custom. This custom carried on to the 20th century, and the memory of it into the 21st.

The activity, thought those of the age, helped sleep come quickly and easily despite the absent scientific tests. But because many thought so, it became scientific fact!

Why Do We Do It?

If enough people say something, we start to believe it's true. Just think of all the "old wives' tales" you assume to be true. And when it comes to sleep, those who aren't getting the sleep they need eventually get desperate enough to try anything, even if there's really no evidence to prove that it will work. Counting sheep is harmless enough, too, that trying it out for a few nights won't hurt anyone.

Is It Beneficial?

An Oxford study discovered that those who count sheep actually take longer to sleep than those who don't. In another Oxford study, scientists found that the reason insomniacs are insomniacs is that they think of only disturbing thoughts, such as unpleasant images and worries, before bed. Those who sleep easily think of only blissful and relaxing things, like laying on an empty beach. So counting sheep tends to hinder your ability to sleep more than it helps. It is too dull an activity. Even reading can help you more than counting sheep can because in it your eyes move rapidly, your mind works, and you enjoy the book. Therefore, you'll joyfully fatigue your mind until it slowly and smoothly shuts down your body.

Counting sheep doesn't help you sleep, but Sleep Better Austin will if you contact us. Dr. Brandon Hedgecock, a member of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, can diagnose you and prescribe options for better sleep so you aren't stuck counting sheep! Give us a call; you won't regret it!