Eating things that are not food - pica
eating; dirt; snail; paint; lead; pica; zinc; iron; soil; poison; autism; behaviour; craving; anaemia ;
Most children eat things such as dirt, sand and snails a few times, but they learn that these things don't taste nice and they stop eating them. Some children go on eating things that are not food. This behaviour, called pica, may be a sign that the child has a developmental, behavioural, emotional, nutritional or health problem.
Infants and young children learn a lot about their world by touching things and putting them into their mouths.
Most children eat things such as dirt, sand and snails a few times, but they learn that these things don't taste nice and they stop eating them. Many chew on things such as wooden toys and the wooden rails of their cots. They may go on doing this for a while, but they usually stop doing it eventually.
Some children go on eating things that are not food. This behaviour, called pica, may be a sign that the child has a developmental, behavioural, emotional, nutritional or health problem. Pica can also be the cause of some serious health problems.
Adults may have pica too. The strange cravings for things that are not food that some women get during pregnancy have been called pica.
The causes of pica are not fully understood.
- It happens more often when children have some major problems such as:
- intellectual disability - people with severe disability are more likely to develop the habit
- neglect or abuse - pica can sometimes happen when children are not being properly cared for.
- Some children who have this habit have low levels of iron or zinc in their bodies. Low zinc levels may lead to changes in the senses of taste and smell. Adults with low zinc levels have reported that food has odd and unpleasant tastes. Things which are not food may taste better if zinc levels are low.
Some children develop this habit when they are growing and developing normally, eating a normal diet and being well cared for, but doctors will check for the other problems before saying the child is 'normal'.
- Children can get poisoning from the things they eat, in particular lead poisoning from things like old paint, and because there may be lead in the soil. Lead poisoning can have serious and long term effects on brain development. Have a look at the topic Lead exposure and poisoning on the Better Health Channel.
- In places where parasites (such as Toxocara or Toxoplasma) are common, children may get these when they eat soil or animal droppings.
- Sometimes fever and illness is caused by unusual infections picked up by eating soil or other non-food things.
Low iron levels
- Some children who have pica have low iron levels in their body, and all children who eat unusual things should be tested to see if they lack iron. Have a look at the topic Iron deficiency - children on the Better Health Channel.
- Iron is needed to make haemoglobin, the red part of blood that carries oxygen to all parts of the body. It is also important for the nervous system, for growth and to fight infections.
- Anaemia, or low haemoglobin in the blood, affects energy levels and development of the brain and other parts of the body.
- Children with pica may need extra foods which are high in iron, such as meat (especially red meat), liver, eggs, seafood, grains, cereals, and legumes. Iron is absorbed easily from meat, but is not so easily absorbed from plant foods unless foods containing vitamin C are eaten at the same time. Your doctor might recommend having tablets or medicines which have iron in them, because these will raise the iron levels in the body more quickly.
Low zinc levels
- Some children with pica have low zinc levels in their bodies too.
- Zinc is needed for growth, vision, taste and smell. It helps the body heal wounds and fight infections.
- If children don't have enough zinc, this can slow their growth, cause poor wound healing, slow down recovery from infections (such as colds), and cause skin rashes and loss of taste and appetite.
- Zinc is found in meat, seafood, eggs and dairy products. There is some in wholegrain cereals, nuts and legumes, but it may not be as well absorbed from these foods. Zinc tablets might be recommended by your doctor.
What parents can do
- It is important to have the child checked by a doctor to look for any underlying causes and to find and treat any health problems, such as low iron or zinc levels, anaemia, parasite infections, or lead poisoning.
- Make sure the child has plenty of affection and attention.
- Remove any poisons, especially anything which may have lead-based paint on it, and try to keep the child from eating dirt.
- Take particular care when renovating old homes to make sure no lead-based paint dust or flakes are where the child might eat them.
It seems that some young children go on eating things that are not food even when parents try to stop it and are caring well for the child. It is likely that this pica will stop when the child is older. However, it is important to have the child's health and development checked regularly while the behaviour is still happening.
Better Health Channel
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.