Amber necklaces and other popular products meant to ease babies? discomfort are useless at best and dangerous at worst
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The amber teething necklace 18-month-old Deacon Morin was wearing was supposed to ease his teething pain. But as the toddler napped at his Southern California daycare in 2016, he was strangled by the product; after being found unconscious by daycare workers, he was taken to the hospital, dying a few days later.
Amber necklaces have also played a role in other, non-fatal strangulations: In 2015, a mother in Australia reported that her 15-month-old daughter?s necklace had wrapped tightly around her neck while she slept; in 2016, researches published a case study of a similar incident with a 4-month-old in Canada. And this popular device isn?t just unsafe for babies and toddlers ? it?s also almost certainly useless. Sellers say that when the beads are warmed by a baby?s body heat, they release a pain-relieving chemical called succinic acid into the skin, but there?s no scientific evidence to support the claim.
Amber necklaces are one of many teething ?remedies? that probably do no good, but definitely have potential to harm. In a 2018 statement prompted in part by Morin?s death, the Food and Drug Administration warned about the dangers of amber necklaces, along with any other kind of teething necklace. Besides the risk of strangulation, beads can break off and choke a child. And in one case, a 9-month-old was diagnosed with lead poisoning after she gnawed on a ?homeopathic magnetic hematite healing bracelet.?
In 2017, homeopathic teething tablets were recalled after an FDA investigation showed the tablets sometimes included dangerous doses of toxic belladonna. Babies taking these tablets have experienced side effects ranging from lethargy to seizures. And last year, Orajel teething products were recalled after the FDA cautioned that products containing benzocaine can cause methemoglobinemia, a rare condition in which the blood doesn?t carry enough oxygen to the cells. (The FDA also pointed out that products like Orajel, which quickly wash out of the mouth, likely don?t do any good.)
Doctors say there?s no need to turn to solutions like these, though, because the best treatments for teething pain are simple and safe. And if your child is really suffering, their symptoms may have nothing to do with teething.
Throughout history, we?ve never really known how to handle teething. For more than a thousand years, a go-to remedy was rubbing an infant?s gums with hare?s brains. Into the early 1800s, doctors recommended slicing the gums to open a path for the teeth. And as recently as the early 20th century, some people sedated crying babies with opium. (Michael Obladen, a Berlin neonatologist, describes this history in a paper titled ?Lethal Lullabies.?) On today?s message boards, you can still find parents admitting to rubbing a little liquor on their baby?s gums, although doctors would really prefer they not.
Our long history of ?treating? teething in harmful ways suggests that we?ve always been desperate to solve this problem. But it may be less of a problem than we think: Although teething gets blamed for a huge variety of symptoms, a 2016 meta-analysis found that the most common side effects are simply gum irritation, crankiness, and drooling.
The paper?s lead author, Carla Massignan, DDS, a dentist and PhD student at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil, says she and her colleagues did their analysis because they often hear from parents wondering whether teething can cause a fever. ?Moms come to the office and ask about this topic. And we didn?t know the answer,? she says. They concluded that teething doesn?t cause a true fever, although teething babies might have a slightly raised body temperature.
Muddling things further is the fact that it?s hard to tell when a baby is really teething, says Dr. Lauren Crosby, a pediatrician at La Peer Pediatrics in Beverly Hills, California, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Babies may drool and gnaw on things even when they don?t have new chompers coming in, and many other alleged symptoms ? like vomiting, coughing, cold symptoms, and diarrhea ? have nothing to do with teething.
?People don?t like to hear that,? Crosby says. ?They want to blame teething because they don?t want their baby to be sick, of course.? But these misconceptions can cause parents to put off bringing a truly sick kid to the pediatrician. Teething is ?actually not that bad? for most children, Crosby says. ?And often if it?s really, really bad, something else is wrong.?
If teething is really the only thing ailing your baby, there are easy and safe ways to make them feel better. A baby might like gnawing on a damp washcloth you?ve put in the freezer, because the cold treats inflammation, just like an ice pack on a sprained ankle. A teething ring that?s cold ? but not frozen solid, which could hurt the gums ? is another good option. You can also try gently massaging the gums, or simply distracting the baby.
Pain medication in the appropriate dose can be helpful, such as acetaminophen, or ibuprofen after six months. But because teething goes on for a good chunk of a child?s first three years, Massignan points out, you don?t want to rely too heavily on medication.
Crosby understands why some parents turn to potentially dangerous teething products. ?When your child?s uncomfortable, you want to give them relief. You want them to feel better,? she says. But whenever a parent brings a child into her office wearing an amber necklace, she asks them to please take it off.