When I was pregnant with my youngest, I noticed that lots of babies and toddlers were sporting a pretty amber necklace and, as someone who adores amber jewelry, I got curious.
Amber Necklaces on Babies.
I discovered they were worn for teething. A lot of parents use them to alleviate the usual symptoms that we associate with cutting teeth: drooling, pain, irritability and so on. I wanted to know more, because I like to see the evidence that something is safe and effective before I invest in it. So, I did some research. This is what I found out and how I made my own risk versus benefit assessment:
Retailers of amber necklaces for teething say that amber contains a substance called succinic acid. They say the “best” type of amber necklace is made from Baltic amber, which is said to have a higher concentration of succinic acid than other types of amber. This substance is said to be released from the amber when warmed by the body heat of the child. The succinic acid is then absorbed through the child’s skin. Apparently, this substance has anti-inflammatory properties and therefore negates the symptoms of teething. I’ve also seen claims that it is good for any number of conditions from asthma through to eczema due to these apparent anti-inflammatory properties. Some retailers make even more statements regarding the properties of amber, claiming that wearing it can favourably affect certain glands or boost the immune system, but none that I have seen explain how this happens.
There are people who say these work on an “energetic” level and cleanse your “chakras” or are natural and therefore safe. I don’t have any basis for the spiritual theories, so didn’t factor them in and “natural” certainly isn’t equal to safer or better.
How They’re Used.
Many sellers suggest using an amber necklace from as young as 3 months. I did find one with a far more conservative recommendation of not using them before 36 months, which seemed a little pointless to me, as surely they’d have most of their teeth by then. Retailers generally advise that the amber necklace is not meant to be left on overnight or during any unsupervised sleeping. Instead they suggest you also buy an amber anklets to be used under clothing while babies sleep. However, I know that many people do leave their amber necklace on all the time, despite the recommendations.
Are They Safe?
I wasn’t sure about putting anything around my baby’s neck. It seemed like common sense. Wouldn’t anything around their neck increase the risk strangulation or choking? Retailers and many parents online assured me that amber necklaces are specially designed for safety. Pressure on them would result in them breaking to minimise strangulation risk and a quality product should have the beads individually knotted so that in the event of a break, there would only be one small bead loose. I still wasn’t comfortable with the idea. Firstly, none of the websites selling these went into any detail about how much pressure these necklaces needed to break. Secondly, there seems to be no regulation on the manufacture of amber necklaces. In fact, I saw that many people advise not to buy them from eBay as you may unknowingly buy a ‘fake’ that isn’t made from Baltic amber at all and may not have the safety features others do. With no regulation or guidelines to adhere to, I wasn’t convinced that the necklace would break if my baby got it caught somehow and was strangling. Just last year, I read about a mum whose toddler had managed to get her arm through her necklace in her sleep. The necklace was wrapped tightly around her arm and neck. Luckily, she was found in time but the marks on her skin showed just how much pressure was exerted onto her amber necklace that didn’t break. And if they do break? One loose bead is still a choking risk.
There was also the fact that the Therapeutic Goods Administration ruled against a popular seller for lack of evidence to support the claims they made about these products and that Product Safety Australia warned of the risks of using them after testing by the Australian Consumer Complaints Commission.
Succinic acid is definitely found in amber. What I wanted to know first off was if succinic acid had anti-inflammatory properties. I couldn’t find any studies saying that it did. And as far as I could tell, it’s not used in any medications for that purpose. Primarily, it seems to be a food additive, and something used in manufacturing. It is used in medication- but not as an anti-inflammatory or analgesic (pain reliever). So because it’s not used this way medically, I wasn’t sold on this being a good idea to begin with. If it was such an effective, safe pain reliever, why wouldn’t we be using it this for that purpose? Also, amber teething necklaces aren’t mean to be chewed (which is what I initially thought they were for), so the succinic acid isn’t actually going to be ingested. Instead, the warmth of the baby’s skin gently heating the beads is said to cause the amber to release the acid which is then absorbed into the body.
If I give my child medicine of any sort, I make sure the dosage is correct. What’s the correct amount of succinic acid? There’s no way of measuring how much is in the beads and how much is being absorbed. All the websites contain assurances that succinic acid is very safe and I couldn’t find any information about children getting ill or overdosing on it through their necklaces, so that was promising.
However, the more I read on amber, the less likely it seemed that the warmth of a baby’s skin would cause it to release anything at all. Amber is fossilised resin. This resin is generally made by trees and becomes hardened over many years. It has to survive all kinds of weather and temperatures as well as microorganisms like bacteria and fungi to actually form. It’s literally as hard as a rock. Is a tiny bit of heat really enough to make it release anything? The answer is no. It’s not. It has a melting point of around 187 degrees Celsius. The body temperature of a baby is around 36-37 degrees Celsius.
I found only one study done on amber necklaces used for teething. It was very small, with a group on 29 parents interviewed. It showed that most of these parents weren’t informed about risks by the retailer but many felt it had had a positive effect. Teething, however, is a self-limiting condition. It ends, without any long-term impact- necklace or no necklace. My theory is that some parents try all the usual remedies, like cold teething rings or toys that can be chewed, teething remedies found in pharmacies and over the counter medications like paracetamol or ibuprofen and find that they don’t relieve all the symptoms they associate with teething (pain, redness, drooling, rashes caused by drooling and general irritability) so by the time they try an amber necklace, teething is almost over. Subsequent teeth might arrive with little to no discomfort- but there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t have even without the necklace. Some put them on before their baby ever really starts to get teeth and parents attribute their lack of teething symptoms to the necklace. I think, with amber teething necklaces, it probably all comes down to a confirmation bias, which is the tendency to favour information that confirms our beliefs.
Risk Versus Benefit.
This is how we made our risk assessment. You might make yours differently; that’s okay, this is not a personal criticism. I may not understand your decision to use an amber necklace, but I also know that my understanding isn’t required. The point here is not to criticise or judge, just to share information on how I made a decision and what that decision was based on. I’m no doctor or scientist so the only thing I will say to those reading along who use the necklaces is this: Please, don’t leave your child sleeping, or in any way not directly supervised, with any sort of necklace. Any benefits you may perceive from amber necklaces are not worth that risk.
#FYBF @ With Some Grace