When my now 2-year-old was a baby she ate random things, as most little ones do. She would go for the coal in the fire and looking back was quite obsessed with it. ‘Pica’ was not a word I had ever even heard until her obsession continued for the next 18 months. Her appetite was not very good and her obsession with eating inedible items became increasingly stressful.
When my now 2-year-old was a baby she ate random things, as most little ones do. She would go for the coal in the fire and looking back was quite obsessed with it. ‘Pica’ was not a word I had ever even heard until her obsession continued for the next 18 months. Her appetite was not very good and her obsession with eating inedible items became increasingly stressful. She started to eat coal from the fire like an apple and handfuls of muck from the garden whilst leaving a full meal on her plate. This is when I took action and had her checked out. When I first learned the word ‘Pica’.
As I mum of four, I know that most kids have playfully made sand pies with their siblings. But what happens if your child isn’t just engaging in an imaginary game? For some children, eating muck, paper, and other inedible or non-food items can be a real behavioural concern. Although this disorder can also occur in adults, it’s most common in kids. Known as Pica, it affects an estimated 10 to 30 percent of children ages one to six.
Here’s what you need to know to determine if it is a problem for your child.
What is Pica?
By definition, pica involves the regular consumption of anything that isn’t a food or beverage.
- Coffee grounds
- Cigarette ashes
- Animal faeces
Sampling play dough once in a while in playschool or Montessori doesn’t mean your child has pica. The behaviour must persist for at least one month to be categorized as the disorder.
Some, but not all, kids with it also have another condition, such as:
- Intellectual disability
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Developmental disability
The cause isn’t entirely clear. It appears to have a behavioural basis, although some children may eat dirt or other substances because they are deficient in certain nutrients, such as iron or zinc.
Warning Signs of Pica
Pica can have dangerous complications, including:
- Intestinal blockage or internal injury
- Infection from bacteria, parasites, or other microbes in dirt
If your child consumes items such as paint chips that contain lead or other toxic chemicals, he or she may be at higher risk for poisoning and brain damage. For these reasons, it’s important to contact your child’s physician if you think he or she has pica.
The following signs can help you determine if a doctor’s appointment is warranted:
- Your child regularly consumes non-food materials, even when you try to restrict access to them.
- The behaviour is persistent and lasts longer than one month.
- The behaviour is inappropriate for your child’s age or developmental stage (he or she is older than 18 to 24 months).
During an evaluation, the doctor will likely conduct a physical examination, run blood tests to check for anaemia and other nutritional deficiencies, and screen for lead and other toxic substances. Your child’s doctor may also refer you to a mental health specialist and will work with you to help prevent and manage pica. For instance, you should discuss appropriate and inappropriate food substances and may need to restrict access to cabinets with childproof locks.
Most cases of pica eventually resolve over time as a child ages. But, taking care of the problem as soon as you spot there might be a problem can help prevent future complications.
Written by Laura Doyle staff writer at FFHQ who also blogs at www.lovelifeandlittleones.com.