Here’s Why People Started Counting Sheep to Fall Asleep

One sheep, two sheep, three sheep...wait, why are we counting sheep again?

Counting sheep to fall asleep is a method that seems to be as old as time. But have you ever stopped to think about why they’re sheep? Why not cats? Or dogs? Well, we finally have an answer.

While the origin of why people count sheep to fall asleep has no definite root, there are a few speculations. The most popular belief, according to Mental Floss, has to do with shepherds in medieval Britain. Apparently, if shepherds used communal grazing land, they were obligated to keep a headcount of their sheep each night. So before they went to sleep, they counted their sheep to ensure that they were all accounted for. (Here are some little changes you can make to immediately sleep better.)

here-s-why-people-started-counting-sheep-to-fall-asleepTatiana Ayazo/, shutterstock

“But at least one book claims the link between sheep and sleep goes back even further,” reports Mental Floss. “A chapter in Disciplina Clericalis, a 12th-century book of fables, suggests that counting sheep had already been a cultural trope in Islamic culture for centuries.”

So does counting sheep to fall asleep actually work? Apparently, you might want to seek other options first (like this trick that will have you dozing off within 60 seconds). “Engaging the brain in a relaxing, repetitive task slows the mind, and stops our racing stressful thoughts from taking over,” says Hilary Thompson, health and wellness consultant for SleepTrain. “Unfortunately, counting sheep is not one of these helpful tasks. Researchers at Oxford University put it to the test and discovered that subjects who pictured running waterfalls and rivers were able to fall asleep much more quickly.”

In addition to picturing something relaxing, breathing techniques also tend to be very effective sleeping aids. “I prefer to teach patients the breath work taught to me by Dr. Andrew Weil,” says Dr. Elizabeth Trattner A.P. DOM, Doctor of Chinese and Integrative Medicine. “Inhale through the nose for a count of 4, hold for 7 and make a whooshing noise out for the count of eight. This breathing technique resets the body, and lowers both stress and anxiety.”

Brittany Gibson
Brittany Gibson is a regular contributor to’s culture, food, health, and travel sections. She was previously an editorial intern for and Westchester Magazine. Her articles have appeared on Buzzfeed, Business Insider, AOL, Yahoo, and MSN, among other sites. She earned a BA in English from the University of Connecticut