"Can I stay up to watch the end of this show, Dad?" pleads Jackson.
"Sorry, son, but tonight's a school night and it's bedtime!" answers Dad.
Does this sound familiar to you? Some form of this conversation goes on in homes all over the world each school night. Parents seek to get their youngsters into bed, while those same youngsters seek to stay up later to engage in a variety of activities that have nothing to do with sleep.
Of course, if you're a youngster, you understand the desire to stay up late. After all, finishing that show, reading one more chapter, or playing one more game is way more fun than going to bed, right? Besides, if you go to bed, it's not like you're going to fall asleep immediately. You're not even tired!
When it's time to go to bed, you might as well get to sleep as quickly as possible to maximize your rest. However, it's not always easy to fall asleep right away. So what do you do when you're just staring at the ceiling, waiting for sleep to come?
If you've ever yelled from the bedroom to let your parents know that you can't get to sleep, you've probably been told to try counting sheep. This advice probably sounded funny the first time you heard it. After all, what does counting sheep have to do with falling asleep?
Counting sheep is a mental exercise that's well-known all over the world as a means of inducing sleep. Adults and children alike often suffer from insomnia, which is a sleep disorder characterized by difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep the whole night long. Any time someone mentions having trouble falling asleep, the suggestion to count sheep usually isn't far behind.
Counting sheep involves closing your eyes and imagining a never-ending line of identical white sheep leaping over a fence. As you count each sheep as it jumps over the fence, your mind is supposed to gradually slip into boredom and eventually sleep.
Exactly how did this method get started? No one knows for sure, but experts believe it probably dates back to well before the 12th century. A 12th-century Spanish text called Disciplina Clericalis tells a story about counting sheep in a way that makes it appear that the practice was already widely-recognized at that time. Some experts believe the practice may have started with ancient shepherds who counted their sheep at night to soothe their worried minds.
Does counting sheep actually work, though? As widespread as the method is, there's actually little support for its effectiveness in inducing sleep. In fact, recent research at Oxford University suggests that counting sheep may actually prolong the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.
In a recent sleep study, Oxford researchers found that people who counted sheep took longer to fall asleep than they normally would had they not counted sheep. On the other hand, they found that people who instead imagined a relaxing scene, such as a peaceful beach or a soothing waterfall, fell asleep an average of 20 minutes earlier.