Do Amber Teething Necklaces Work?
I've thought amber is kind of awesome ever since I saw the old-school Jurassic Park. It's basically fossilized sap from ancient pine forests, and it preserved those mosquitos with bellies full of dinosaur blood. The scientists in the movie used the DNA from that blood to make new dinosaurs, which proceeded to eat most of them alive. The circle of life.
Today, amber is enjoying a renaissance in the form of teething necklaces for babies and toddlers. I see kids wearing them everyday. Teething can be rough - parents can't bear to see their kids suffer and are desperate to do anything to help. Amber teething necklaces are "natural," they look pretty, and they offer hope to parents looking for an answer.
There are a variety of claims as to how they might work. Some are downright crazy, such as enabling your baby’s body to heal itself, radiating healing energy, or harnessing the power of magnetism. The most rational-sounding explanation is that the amber contains a pain-relieving substance called succinic acid which is released by your baby’s body heat and absorbed through the skin. Baltic amber does indeed contain succinic acid, but it melts at 187 degrees. So your baby wouldn’t really be able to melt or absorb it even with a raging fever. And even if she could, would it be good to have a constant stream of an untested chemical leaching into your baby’s skin? While very occasional Tylenol use for severe teething is fine, most parents certainly wouldn't dose it every four hours for weeks while their child was teething.
There is also a common sense recommendation against infants wearing necklaces due to risks of strangulation or choking on beads. In September 2017, an eighteen-month old was strangled by his amber necklace while sleeping in his crib at daycare. Certainly this case was a rare tragedy, and the risk to your child is low, but it can happen. Many of the necklaces are now sold with safety features such as strings that break if pulled on and knots in between each bead so a baby can’t swallow a bunch at once. In a 2018 study, the safety-conscious Canadians tested these features in 15 amber necklaces bought from various sources. (1) They applied 1.6 pounds of pressure - the amount of force known to occlude the airways of small children - to each necklace, and 80% of them failed to open.
If the necklaces don't work and pose a safety risk, why do so many people use them? There actually was a study on this in France back in 2012 - the researchers interviewed parents of kids wearing amber necklaces in an emergency department. (2) They found that most parents, even when educated about the risk of the necklaces, had a greater fear of seeing their child suffer now versus the more theoretical risk of strangulation. They also felt good about a "natural" solution for a natural phenomenon such as teething.
Also, we're wired to be impacted by stories - your friend telling you that it worked wonders can make a bigger impact on you than all the dry stuff I wrote in the above paragraphs. Finally, the placebo effect is really strong. If you start something and expect it to work, it’s usually going to seem like it’s working.
Amber necklaces are not the end of the world, and I have a bunch of great parents who use them and are trying to make the best decisions for their kid. If you do decide to use one, make sure that it is not very "dangly" to minimize the risk of getting it caught on something. For a fuller exploration of amber, I would refer you to the book Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, which is twice as sweet as the movie.
1. Fad over fatality? The hazards of amber teething necklaces. Soudek L, McLaughlin R. Paediatr Child Health. 2018 Apr;23(2):106-110. doi: 10.1093/pch/pxx158.
2. Infants wearing teething necklaces. Taillefer A. et al. Arch Pediatr. 2012; 19(10):1058-64. doi: 10.1016/j.arcped.2012.07.003.