The local grocery store sells capsules. Sephora carries lotions. And that effortlessly put-together mom at drop-off swears by a $78 oil to help her sleep. Yup, we’re talking about CBD, which many (including your yoga teacher) tout as the ultimate salve for anxiety, pain and insomnia, among other woes. But put-together mom and yoga instructor aside, what about our children (who are bouncing off the walls as we speak)? Is CBD oil for kids safe? Or even a good idea?
Hang tight there, mama. Before you start dropping cannabinoid oil under your child’s tongue or packing gummies in her lunchbox, you need to get the scoop on whether or not it’s safe and effective. Read on for a deep dive into how CBD works and the risks and benefits associated with giving it to children. (Spoiler: CBD oil is not recommended for kids, but there’s also still a lot of research to be done in order to prove the efficacy either way.)
What is CBD?
CBD, short for cannabidiol, is an organic compound found in both the hemp plant and its under-the-counter cousin, marijuana. In fact, CBD is the second-most active component in marijuana, but unlike THC (aka tetrahydrocannabinol), it has no psychoactive properties. So don’t worry; it’s not a gateway drug—it’s not even going to get you (or your kid) high. That said, pure CBD has been touted as a therapeutic treatment for an astonishing array of ailments: insomnia, anxiety, schizophrenia, epilepsy, menstrual cramps, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, inflammation and chronic pain, to name a few.
How do I use CBD?
Curious about its potential as an organic cure-all? Take note: Not all modes of delivery are created equal. In order of speed and efficiency, CBD can be smoked (or more commonly, vaped), absorbed as a tincture, ingested orally or applied topically.
In fact, Consumer Reports published a helpful guide to these methods of CBD use, as summarized here:
- Topicals (like lotions) are a very safe option, but probably not going to give you a very strong therapeutic effect, as much higher doses are needed when CBD is absorbed by skin.
- Edibles and capsules will do the trick but can take a while to be absorbed and start working.
- Smoking or vaping is extremely effective (it enters the bloodstream in 30 seconds or less), but with few studies done on the safety of vaping CBD (and some seriously scary details emerging about vaping in general), you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone credible recommending this option.
- Tinctures almost always come in the form of an oil (fats preserve the cannabidiol extract), which is then put directly into the mouth by way of spray or dropper. When using a dropper, it is recommended that you drop the oil underneath the tongue and hold it there for 30 seconds before swallowing, lest your tincture turn into an edible.
So yeah, CBD can be found pretty much everywhere and in every form, from bath bombs to seltzers to face masks to mascaras (yep). But ubiquity doesn’t mean safety. For starters…
Is CBD oil safe for kids?
If you’re intrigued by the anecdotal evidence and wondering what the harm is in trying this trendy stuff out on your sleep-deprived or anxious child, we don’t blame you. And there’s at least one case study that suggests the therapeutic benefit of CBD in children; this one from 2016, which details a 10-year-old girl who suffered from PTSD-related anxiety and insomnia and found her symptoms improved by CBD treatment. What’s more, there’s a pretty strong consensus among reputable sources that pure CBD does not pose serious, acute health risks. The World Health Organization’s critical review concludes that “CBD is generally well tolerated with a good safety profile.” But don’t go rushing to the health food store yet. The WHO report is helpful in furthering research efforts, but you should probably leave the clinical trials to the scientists, most doctors agree.
We checked in with clinical psychologist Dr. Bethany Cook (author of For What It's Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0-2) as to what she thought about the use of CBD for pediatric patients with anxiety. Bottom line: She encourages parents to consult a pediatrician before exploring alternative therapies like CBD, acknowledging that CBD could be a useful part of a pediatric anxiety treatment plan because of its ability to produce “decreased physiological responses” but agrees that “much research still needs to be done to understand all the potential pros and cons.”
We confirmed this with Dr. Dyan Hes (medical director and founder of Gramercy Pediatrics), who agrees that it’s best not to start experimenting with relatively unknown remedies. Dr. Hes reminds parents that, aside from the “one FDA approved THC based drug, Epidiolex, for use in specific types of seizures in children over age 2 years…no other CBD oils on the market have been tested in a rigorous scientific manner in children.” Plus, because the promising early evidence is too new to provide insight on long-term effects, “we do not know how CBD would interact with other medications or affect the growing brain.”
She also notes that because CBD is technically classified as a “supplement,” the regulations are pretty loosey-goosey and products may be unreliable. In fact, “there is not one quality control agency verifying the labeling and concentration of CBD in the oil, [and] CBD itself has varying strengths depending on the source and manufacturing process.” In other words, pure CBD used at a known dose could very well be the best thing since sliced bread, but the point is moot because that’s not what you’re buying at the bodega. For this reason, Dr. Hes says, “pediatricians have concluded that at this point it is not safe to give a child any CBD product. This goes across the board whether to be used topically on the skin or ingested.”
TLDR: Would Dr. Hes recommend CBD for children? “For now, the answer is no,” she tells us.
OK, but my kid is still anxious and can’t sleep. What can I do?
Dr. Cook says that “teaching cognitive coping skills…is a powerful way to restructure neural pathways to treat and prevent anxiety.” In short, there are tons of ways to help your child stay calm without going the CBD route. Here are a few tried-and-true methods, recommended by moms and health professionals alike.
1. Limit screen time
TV is fast-paced these days (take a stroll down memory lane and watch Mr. Rogers for comparison) and has been linked to aggression, attention and sleep issues in children. It’s not just television—even just one hour of general screen time per day has been linked to lowered curiosity, self-control, emotional stability and a greater inability to complete tasks, according to a San Diego State University study published in 2018 in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports. Add to that a National Institutes of Health estimate that today’s youth spend an average of five to seven hours staring at a screen each day…and Houston, we’ve got a problem.
But let’s be real, technology isn’t going anywhere, and kids are drawn to it like moths to a flame, so you might want to take advantage of that. Which brings us to...
2. Download a meditation app
There are dozens—some better than others—that can cater to your child’s specific needs whether it’s helping your little one fall asleep with a soothing sleep story or providing centering visual cues or calming breathing exercises. Smiling Mind offers a super zen “full body scan” to help kids become more aware of how their bodies react when they’re under duress. Headspace and StopBreatheThink also have guided meditations specifically designed for kids.
3. Invest in noise-cancelling headphones
Maybe you live in a small space and have a light sleeper, or perhaps your child struggles with sensory overload. Good noise-cancelling headphones or earmuffs can help her find quiet and calm no matter the situation—and they’re doctor-recommended. A study published in the Hong Kong Journal of Occupational Therapy found that children with autism spectrum disorder who often experience anxiety benefitted greatly from having those unpleasant sounds and stimuli blocked. Find a pair with a cool print or pattern on them in your kid’s favorite color and you’re golden.
4. Tuck under a weighted blanket
Real clinical studies into weighted blankets and how effective they actually are don’t exist (yet). But experts seem to be sold on at least giving them a chance when it comes to anxiety and sleeplessness. The idea here is that the blankets act in the same way that tightly swaddling a newborn creates a feeling of snug security that encourages calmness and sleep, a Harvard Medical School paper praising the pricey blankets explained. The university recommends trying one that’s about 10 percent of your child’s overall body weight, meaning a 60-pound kid should use a blanket no heavier than six pounds.
5. Be a team
While many of these products can work wonders, dealing with your issues piecemeal might not be as effective as thinking holistically. You are in this battle with your child. So join the team. Meditate with them and get comfy under the weighted blanket. Learn alongside your child what’s working and what’s not and develop a lifestyle that works for you both. A great resource on actively dealing with your kid’s anxiety in real time is this list from The Child Mind Institute. It recommends techniques like modeling healthy anxiety management in yourself, expressing positive but realistic expectations and tackling scary things together.
Is CBD even legal?
We went to WebMD (best friend to moms and hypochondriacs the world over) to learn a little bit about CBD’s current legal status. And suffice it to say, it’s complicated. See, as of 2018, hemp and hemp-derived products became legal in all 50 states. But there are some exceptions when it comes to CBD. For example, “[CBD] can't be legally included in foods or dietary supplements. Also, cannabidiol can't be included in products marketed with therapeutic claims...” And these restrictions apply to all CBD products, including those derived from hemp, even though the hemp plant itself contains only trace amounts of THC. And just to add to the confusion (though it is news to nobody): “there are still products labeled as dietary supplements on the market that contain cannabidiol...”
TLDR: Businesses aren’t being busted for selling CBD, and parents who buy it aren’t being charged with misdemeanors. Still, the restrictions are in place for a reason, so that's something to consider before you administer it to yourself or, of course, your children.
Is CBD effective?
Anecdotal evidence of CBD’s healing capacity abounds: Internet blogs say you should have it in your “parenting toolbox,” your real-life social circle buzzes about its efficacy and even PureWow writers kind of dig it, too.
Same goes for the medical and scientific communities, where practitioners and researchers alike are excited about its potential, and for good reason—the early evidence is promising and the findings suggest more than just a fad.
For example, a 2019 study in The Permanente Journal, "Cannabidiol in Anxiety and Sleep: A Large Case Series," published just this year concluded that “cannabidiol may hold benefit for anxiety-related disorders.” While the results of this study showed “no evidence of a [limiting] safety issue,” researchers echoed the resounding sentiment of the medical community: “all results must be interpreted very cautiously. Randomized and controlled trials are needed to provide definitive clinical guidance.”
In a 2018 study in the publication Neuropsychopharmacology, which focused on impulse control and addictive behaviors, researchers found in rat subjects (so take this study with a grain of salt) “proof of principle supporting potential of CBD for relapse prevention.”
There’s also a ton more research out there on CBD’s potential as a therapeutic treatment, and it looks pretty good—but the science still remains too scarce and too young to validate the many glowing claims made about its use. Fortunately, the explosion of consumer interest in the compound has encouraged Congress to support further research and many more studies are currently under way. For now, though, few doctors are willing to give you (or your kiddo) the go-ahead.
TLDR: There’s still a lot more research to be done for a definitive answer.
Yeah, we can’t condone giving your kiddo a whole bunch of CBD gummies. But there are plenty of resources for helping your little guy stay calm under pressure. (And if you’re still concerned that his anxiety isn’t improving, definitely consult your pediatrician.)