August 29, 2014
A few years ago, hipster babies started sporting more than chic haircuts and the H&M baby clothing line. I saw lots of little infant boys and girls filing in my office wearing a string of brown beads around their neck and I was officially introduced to amber teething necklaces. In recent years, amber teething necklaces have grown drastically in popularity. So for all my crunchy, semi-crunchy, wannabe-crunchy, and thinking-about-becoming-crunchy moms out there and everyone else with a teething baby, this post is for you. Watching your baby go through teething can be an uncomfortable process, and it is more than understandable that parents want to foster their child’s comfort during the eruption of new teeth. So, what is an amber necklace? And even more importantly: are these necklaces effective and are they safe?
What is an amber teething necklace and how does it work?
Amber is a fossilized tree resin. Amber teething necklaces are not meant to be chewed on by infants, like the majority of teething products and toys. Rather it is supposed to be worn around the neck to allow for skin absorption of amber (specifically baltic amber) from body heat. Advertisers claim a variety of benefits for your child, obviously the most common being pain relief, but also including: improving the body’s immunity and blood circulation, fighting infections, irritation, respiratory disease, muscle pains, and arthritis, transmuting negative energy to positive, relieving depression, supporting detoxification, and alleviating liver, spleen, and adrenal disorders. Some also say that the ionization in amber protects that body from various magnetic fields as well. This long list of purported benefits begs the question: is there anything amber can’t do? My inner scientist and clinician wanted to know how amber necklaces fit this lengthy bill of goods, and many moms out there have asked me the same thing. So after pretty extensive research, this is what I found.
Essential, there is only one plausible mechanism of action for the pain relief (analgesic) effect of baltic amber. Changing magnetic fields and fostering positive energy and all of the other claims listed above can be summarized in one word: bologna. But how does the analgesic claim add up? Here’s the low down: Baltic amber contains trace amounts of succinic acid (approximately 3-8%). It is true that succinic acid is found naturally in the body as a part of the Krebs cycle. Ironically enough, while succinic acid can be found in some foods and is generally safe for consumption, the FDA labels succinic acid as a skin irritant. Those selling baltic amber necklaces claim that succinic acid is the chemical that has analgesic properties and is therefore helpful in reducing pain. Sounds good right? Well, we have two major problems.
First, we have a monumental problem of chemical delivery. For baltic amber to work the 3-8% of succinic acid is supposed to be absorbed trans-dermally (through the skin) into the body, go through the entire blood stream and then be delivered to the inflamed gums. However, amber is extremely hard. Remember, it’s fossilized tree resin, and baltic amber according to the Mohs scale is as hard as gold. Succinic acid melts at 368 degrees Fahrenheit (187 degrees Celsius). Here’s the bottom line: there is no evidence that baltic amber releases succinic acid at body temperature.
But let’s pretend for a minute that succinic acid actually makes it in your child’s body. The second and even more important issue; succinic acid has never been proven to assist in pain relief in humans. I’m not talking about a few low quality studies with undetermined findings, I’m talking about none. Zip. Zero. Not one. There was one study that found that succinic acid may reduce anxiety in mice, but again, no evidence of pain relief and no studies on humans. If you are interested to read more, I recommend you read this article.
We could get caught up all day in stories from moms citing their anecdotal evidence that their child’s amber necklace worked miracles. For every one of those stories there is another mom writing about how it was a waste of money that didn’t do anything. However, these positive stories are still very enticing when you look at your fussy, teething infant while trying to produce healthy solutions for pain relief. “It’s natural. Isn’t it worth a try?” Natural does not inherently mean safe. Here’s the take away: amber teething necklaces are dangerous for the same reason any necklace worn by an infant is dangerous. They present a serious strangulation and choking risk. Amber teething necklaces are not safe. Even if you take it off when they are sleeping, or you wrap it around their foot, or it snaps off easily, or the beads are individually strung, or whatever! Necklaces are still a hazard! Amber necklaces are not a risk worth taking, especially when the efficacy has never been proven. I had one small infant lose circulation to her hand just from accidentally getting twisted in a very small ribbon on a stuffed animal she was sleeping with. Her mom was horrified to hear her crying in the morning only to find her swollen, reddish-blue hand sticking out of her crib. Amber teething necklaces can undoubtably cause the same type of strangulation and worse. Naturally, teething babies love to chew, so choking on the small amber beads is a likely possibility and highly concerning. I fear the potential outcomes.
Amber teething necklaces are not effective and they are not safe. I know they are hip, but they are not healthy and they can truly be harmful. Pursue teething relief through safe chewing products, toys or even a simple cold washcloth and avoid amber teething necklaces for your baby.