Babies and young children learn a lot about their world by touching things and putting them into their mouths. They also often have a go at eating things that we think disgusting – dirt, chalk, coffee grounds, ashes – and others that we think may be a health risk – glue, rust, paint chips, cigarette buts.
Usually after a couple of experiments, most children come to the same conclusion as their parents, that these things are yuk to eat! But there are some who persist in eating things that aren’t food. This behaviour, called pica, may be a sign that the child has a developmental, behavioural, emotional, nutritional or health problem.
Causes of pica
Why some children develop pica is not clearly understood, but experts do agree that it’s more likely to happen when children have some type of problem like:
- intellectual disability
- childhood schizophrenia
- neglect or abuse
- low iron or zinc levels – As low zinc levels can alter our senses of taste and smell, things which would not usually be appealing to eat, taste better with low zinc levels.
Some children who are developing normally develop a pica habit. But before you can dismiss it as curiosity and something that your child will just grow out of, have her thoroughly checked out by your GP.
Pica: What can I do?
While it will probably be a completely normal phase your toddler is going through, it’s always best to discourage the eating of non-food items. Pica can lead to some serious health issues such as:
- Poisoning, in particular lead poisoning, from things like old paint, or lead in the soil. Lead poisoning can have serious and long term effects on brain development.
- Intestinal parasites if she eats soil or animal droppings.
- Intestinal blockage if she manages to swallow something large
Some young children persist in eating things that are not food even after you try to stop the behaviour. No doubt, your child will grow out of pica but in the meantime, it’s important to have her health and development regularly checked by your GP.
Low iron levels can cause pica in some children.
- Iron is needed to make haemoglobin, the red part of blood that carries oxygen to all parts of the body. It’s also an integral part of the nervous and immune systems, as well as being needed for growth.
- Foods high in iron include red meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, grains, cereals, and legumes.
- Iron is absorbed easily from meat, but needs Vitamin C to be consumed simultaneously to be absorbed from plant foods.
- If your child is low in iron, an iron supplement may be recommended by your GP.
Low zinc levels can cause pica in some children.
- Zinc is needed for growth, vision, taste and smell, and it is vital in building a mature immune system.
- Zinc is easily absorbed and found in high quantity in proteins – meat, seafood, eggs and dairy products. Zinc can also be found in some wholegrain cereals, nuts and legumes, but its absorption rate is not as high from these foods as from proteins.
- If your child is low in zinc, a zinc supplement may be recommended by your GP