Q: My 7-month-old is cutting teeth and is miserable. What is the deal with amber teething necklaces? Do they work?
A: While many parents get excited about the milestone of tooth eruption, they similarly dread the associated discomfort that their child may experience. As is always the case as a parent, it is natural to want to do something to help — but figuring out what to do is particularly difficult during the age that children are teething, as their communication and comprehension skills have not yet developed. Many different approaches are used by parents to attempt to help their children through teething. Some are known to be effective, some have unknown effectiveness; some have no major risks, some have no known risks (not studied) and some truly are risky. It is important to be able to weigh these factors when deciding what to try with your child.
Amber teething necklaces are believed to help by releasing oils into the skin of the child that have healing properties. These oils purportedly work by decreasing acidity in the body. While a low pH in the body can be associated with discomfort, it is more generally the inflammation and pressure of teething that cause pain. It has not been studied scientifically if amber placed against the skin actually helps with teething, so I cannot say for certain, but it is unclear exactly why it would help. The NIH has an awesome website on almost anything that has been studied in complementary/alternative medicine, but it does not have any information on amber. Thus, it may be worth trying, but that might be all you’re doing — trying — and there is potential risk if the necklaces aren’t used properly.
Like any intervention, if you do decide to try this, it is important to understand the risks and how to proceed safely. Necklaces themselves are strangulation hazards for an infant or toddler. Additionally, the beads of the necklace are choking hazards as well, so the child should not be biting/mouthing/gumming the necklace at all (and remember, that's not how they're theorized to work). The teething necklaces should NEVER be worn by the child: the idea is that they are worn by a parent and that the oils get transmitted while holding the child (which itself is comforting).
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What CAN help? Mouthing a teething toy (no separate parts), especially if cold, can help provide relief to a child and satisfy the urge to bite something. Using acetaminophen or ibuprofen (the latter if older than six months) can help provide relief as well.
What is NOT a good idea? Teething gels have been studied and never shown to be effective. Any gels or sprays that have lidocaine specifically should not be used, as it can cause a serious blood condition (methemoglobinemia). Teething tablets should be avoided, as they contain belladonna, which can be toxic in infants and children.
If you have a question about your child's health or happiness, ask Dr. Eichner or any of our experts by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian Eichner is a general pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke Children's Primary Care-Roxboro Street in Durham. He enjoys providing care for children who are healthy as well as those with complex medical conditions. Dr. Eichner also serves as the medical director of the Duke Pediatric Diagnostic Clinic. He and his wife have lived in the Triangle since 2006.