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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.

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Infants and young children learn a lot about their world by touching things and putting them into their mouths. 

Most (probably all) 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. They may swallow things such as coins, marbles, beads, small batteries, buttons, tablets, small parts of toys, and even sharp things such as broken pieces of glass, needles and open safety pins. Have a look at the topic Swallowed objects - children swallowing small objects .

Some children go on eating things that are not food such as dirt, snails, hair, clothing and plastic. 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.

Causes of pica

The causes of pica are not well 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
    • autism
    • 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'.

Health problems from pica

  • 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 your health on the Better Health Channel. (https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/)
  • Very rarely in Australia fever and illness is caused by unusual infections picked up by eating soil, slugs 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 medicines which have iron in them, because these will raise the iron levels in the body more quickly. Tablets that are recommended for adults contain much more iron than is safe for a child. They should not be given to children.

Low zinc levels

  • When children occasionally eat snails or other unusual things they won't have a low zinc level, but a few children who eat things that are not food often, and who won't eat normal, varied foods may have low zinc levels in their bodies.
  • Adults with low zinc levels have reported that some food does not taste pleasant, and this might lead to eating unusual things.
  • 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.
  • Children having a healthy, varied diet will be getting zinc from many foods. 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.
  • If you are concerned, talk with your doctor.

What parents can do

  • If your child is eating unusual  things often, talk with your doctor to look for any underlying causes and to find and treat any health problems, such as low iron level, anaemia, parasite infections (very rare in Australia), or lead poisoning.
  • Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if you are not confident that your child's development or behaviour is similar to other children.
  • Remove anything which may have lead-based paint on it.

Trying to keep your child from eating dirt and other odd things is probably futile. Remind yourself that this behaviour is usually only for a short time - almost all children do fairly quickly learn that dirt and slugs etc., do not taste nice or interesting. Dirt is not poisonous.

Keep your response low key so that no struggles occur.

Take particular care when renovating old homes to make sure no lead-based paint dust or flakes are where the child might eat them. Don't do paint stripping or sanding of old paint while your child is crawling or during a pregnancy.

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. Usually this pica will stop when the child is older. However, it is important to have your child's health and development checked regularly while the behaviour is still happening.

More information

Better Health Channel
 http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/ 

Medlineplus  (USA Government site)
https://medlineplus.gov/  

Kidshealth.org (Nemour's Foundation)
https://kidshealth.org/ 

Family Doctor. org 
https://familydoctor.org/

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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.

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