Amber teething necklaces: a ritual for parents, not kids

Amber teething necklaces are suddenly everywhere. Celebrities' kids are photographed wearing them. Parenting message boards are full of success stories. Etsy alone offers thousands of versions. I'll avoid any suspense here: there is no scientific data to even suggest, let alone prove, that amber teething necklaces, though adorable, do anything to alleviate teething pain.

"But oh," an astute reader of parenting boards and online comments might say, "you need to make sure you have the genuine Baltic Amber. The cheap kinds don't work." The compound in question here is succinic acid, which, according to sellers of the necklaces, is an analgesic that alleviates teething pain. One problem with this claim is that while amber does contain succinic acid, it does not generally release it. One study did find that amber teething necklace released succinic acid...after the bead in question broke into fragments. Extrapolating from these results, an amber teething necklace might produce succinic acid if your child manages to bite through it. Even if your child did bite into the necklace and a shard of it did produce succinic acid, the dose would be impossibly small

There is no evidence that the compounds in amber teething necklaces, Baltic or no, do anything to relieve teething pain. And yet, if you take a quick tour of any online parenting board and you'll see countless parents reporting that their children experienced less teething pain when wearing the necklaces.  

 

Before you go buy your own necklace, pause and consider what lower reported teething pain means. The baby is not doing the reporting. Her parents are. And if the parents believe a necklace is reducing teething pain, they're more likely to report a baby's tears as fatigue, or hunger, or any of the myriad reasons babies cry. The teething necklace is a sort of placebo that lets parents "help" their children's pain. 

Or perhaps that should be "help" their children's "pain." Parents are, it should be noted, notoriously poor judges of teething pain. One Cleveland Clinic study had parents record temperatures as well as 18 other symptoms of their children from ages 4 months to 1 year. Using the data they collected, researchers were able to identify some symptoms that appear more closely related to teething than others, but that data should be accepted with caution. No one symptom was present in greater than 35% of the tooth eruptions, meaning that many of the symptoms that parents attribute to teething are not prerequisites for teething. 

Should you buy a teething necklace? Probably not. Although the necklaces have not been scientifically linked to pain relief, they have been linked to choking and strangulation. But teething necklaces should teach us about the value of rituals. If you suspect your child is teething and he loves wearing hats, tell him you are going to put on his special tooth hat. If your child loves popsicles, give her the whole twin pop at teething time. It doesn't really matter what ritual we choose, because it isn't an analgesic for the children. Given what pediatricians understand about teething, it's unlikely our children are feeling all of the pain we're ascribing to them. Instead, the teething ritual's true value is in numbing our own panicked parent brains.