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Children enter the world hardwired with plenty of quirks and traits, but no one is born a “bad sleeper.” In fact, sleep troubles are a habit kids pick up—and one that parents often unknowingly reinforce.

Though it’s not easy to change poor sleep habits, it’s not impossible—particularly for children in preschool and elementary school, says Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, a Yale Medicine psychologist and author of “Become Your Child’s Sleep Coach: The Bedtime Doctor’s 5-Step Guide, Ages 3-10” (Lifelong Books).

It’s with the best of intentions that parents end up reinforcing poor sleep habits, notes Schneeberg, identifying “too much parental assistance” as a key factor fueling the problem. “It is challenging to help children in this age group learn to fall asleep independently at bedtime because they can talk and walk, which means they can ask you to come back to their room for many creative reasons, or come out of their rooms to find you and ask for one more escorted trip to the bathroom, more ice for their water cup, and so on,” Schneeberg explains. “Luckily, their brains are adaptable, and they can learn new ways to fall asleep that don’t involve a parent.”

Understanding how you respond to your child’s nighttime requests is the first step to addressing them, says Craig Canapari, MD, a Yale Medicine pediatric sleep specialist, pulmonologist, and author of “It’s Never Too Late to Sleep Train: The Low-Stress Way to High-Quality Sleep for Babies, Kids, and Parents” (Rodale).

So what’s the solution? Create new, healthy habits around everything involving your child’s sleep routine. “Routine” is the key word here. Children naturally crave consistency and predictability—not just for sleep, but for most aspects of their day-to-day lives. Clear rules and expectations help reduce anxiety because your child knows what to expect, and therefore can help things run smoothly. A firm order of events around bedtime will allow you and your child to adopt good habits—meaning you can turn on “autopilot” and follow a set plan.

In their books, Schneeberg and Dr. Canapari both delve into the nitty-gritty of how to create a solid bedtime routine, offering ways to tackle common problems, including night terrors, early wakings, and children who won’t sleep in their own beds.

But before you can bring about positive change, it helps to understand where things went wrong. We highlight a few mistakes caregivers make and offer tips from Dr. Canapari and Schneeberg on how to fix them.

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