Does counting sheep help you get to sleep?

Maybe. It may worth giving it a try.

Counting sheep has long been touted as a way of combating insomnia; with references to the practice in literature date back more than 150 years.

The traditional advice is to imagine a line of the woolly creatures jumping over a fence one by one, and keep a tally as they go. But will this help you nod off or is it just folklore?

Unfortunately, there's no clear answer because no scientific studies have specifically addressed the counting sheep technique.

But there is evidence using mental imagery can help distract you from stressful thoughts, which commonly cause insomnia, and so speed up the time taken to drop off.

Simple, repetitive, boring

Sydney sleep psychologist Dianne Richards says the ideal distraction strategy is "very simple, very repetitive and somewhat boring".

While counting sheep might seem to fit the bill perfectly, Richards isn't so sure.

"It really depends to a large extent on how you feel about sheep," she says. Her hunch is that other methods will have broader appeal.

The idea behind distraction strategies is to stop your mind worrying, planning or problem solving as these are activities that lead to production of the stress hormone cortisol.

"Once that happens, you're 'wired' and you're opportunity to sleep takes a nose dive," says Richards, who works at the insomnia clinic at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research.

But if the alternative task you give your brain is too boring, or it simply doesn't appeal, you won't stick with it and your mind will drift back to the thoughts that produce cortisol.

Also, counting tasks themselves are perceived as stressful by many people, so Richards does not usually recommend them.

"Sometimes counting tasks are OK, but trying to keep track of numbers does put some people off," she says.

And if the sheep you imagine are jumping, this can be too stimulating for some people. "If you were just watching them standing still and you were up close feeling the wool, just feeling the softness of the fleece, that would probably be better.

"Ultimately, the task you choose has to be effective for you. It's got to be something you find pleasant and relaxing."

Different strategies

So if counting sheep appeals to you, by all means give it a go. However, Richards prefers other strategies, and suggests you develop a repertoire of strategies for different nights.

Richard's favourite is imagining four two-dimensional coloured shapes – for example a red triangle, a blue square, a yellow diamond and a green circle – and mentally examining them one by one, over and over again, in great detail.

"That gets me off to sleep straight away," she says. But if the coloured shapes don't grab you, you could try visualising:

  • waves gently lapping against the side of a boat
  • coloured fish slowly swimming by
  • the arrangement of petals in a single rose
  • a plane slowly skywriting, perhaps spelling out the word 'relax'.

But these strategies alone are rarely enough to cure entrenched sleep problems. Other elements of most insomnia treatment programs include learning about the physiology of sleep, along with the behaviours and beliefs that can interfere with sleep. Relaxation and meditation techniques can also be very useful.