Teething can be distressing for both child and parent alike. No parent wants to see their child suffer, and so we seek any which way to soothe our child's sore gums. Something that has become very popular over the past few years is the use of amber necklaces, which are claimed to ease the pain of getting new teeth. It's hard to ignore when everyone in your mothers' group has one, and Miranda Kerr's son graces the cover of a glossy magazine sporting the trendy accessory.
When I first heard of them, I assumed the amber was meant to be chewed on, but not so. The necklaces are made from Baltic amber - fossilised tree sap found in the Baltic sea. It is then polished into round beads, and strung onto a necklace, which is worn against the skin of the child. The idea is that the succinic acid in the amber leaches out when body heat warms the beads, it is absorbed through the skin, and provides a natural painkiller.
Amber has a long history of medicinal use, as far back as ancient Greece. It has been rubbed on the skin, ingested as a powder with honey, and bathed in with sand to cure all sorts of maladies. Unfortunately, there is still no evidence that it is at all effective at relieving teething discomfort. Plenty of people say that they found it helped their child, but there is yet to be a legitimate scientific trial to prove these claims.
Both of my children have worn one, and I honestly don't know whether it helped them or not. Looking at the science, it really doesn't seem plausible:
- Succinic acid has a melting point of 184°c. Given the average body is around 37°c, it doesn't make sense that body heat would cause the acid to come out of the amber. To look at that point another way, let's say that succinic acid does leach out of the amber at 37°c. The authentic Baltic amber is around 20 million years old. At some point during that vast amount of time, the amber would have been heated beyond 37°c many times from being in the sun, or even from sitting in your letterbox in summer after you've ordered a necklace online. This stands to reason that there would be very little, if any, of the active ingredient left by the time the necklace makes it onto a person.
- Let's say that I've missed something, and that it is possible for the succinic acid to survive within the amber until worn, and then come out to be absorbed by the skin. There is no evidence that succinic acid works as a pain reliever, even in doses far greater than what would be possible to absorb from a necklace.
- Putting all that aside, and again assuming that I've got both of those things wrong, do you really want an unregulated amount of a biologically active substance being administered to your child day and night? Succinic acid is essential in many functions of the body, but is also lethal to most people when doses exceed 2.26g per kg of body weight.
After looking into this interesting topic, I'm certain that amber teething necklaces have no clinical effect. So what if it seems like they don't work, what's the harm?
- Necklaces on a baby or toddler present a real choking risk. Worn around the neck, they can catch on furniture, or even the child's own arm or leg and strangle the child. If a necklace breaks, it only takes one bead to come loose for a child to choke on it. Most on the market are individually knotted, which is great as it means the beads don't go everywhere if the necklace breaks. There will still be one bead loose though, and the last place you want that is in your child's airway. Teething will not kill a child, but choking will.
- The belief that the amber is providing therapeutic benefit may delay some parents from seeking medical attention when needed. Teething happens a lot throughout infancy, and so will often coincide with another illness or problem. It's important not to blame everything on teething and seek medical help if your child has a high fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, or a rash.
That's enough of what I think, though. What do the experts have to say? In 2011 the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) issued a consumer protection notice about amber teething necklaces, warning against their use.
The bottom line is, the potential benefit from wearing one does not outweigh the real risk of a child choking. If you want to give it a try, never leave your child unattended when wearing one, and you should definitely not leave it on while they are sleeping. There are many other ways to manage the discomfort of teething, which are proven to be safe and effective.