Pica and your one-year-old

Chewing on toys, necklaces, or any small-ish item within reach is normal behavior for a one-year-old. Baby might even try to put a leaf or a rock in their mouth if it looks particularly interesting. A few germs from items like these won’t harm them, and you’ll usually be able to steer them toward something edible pretty easily. However, if your child continues to try to eat non-food items and can’t be convinced to stop, it could be a sign of pica.

Pica is an eating disorder diagnosed when a person shows a pattern of eating non-food materials like dirt or paper for more than a month. It’s more likely to affect children than adults, but it can also affect pregnant women. According to the National Institutes of Health, up to a third of children ages 1 to 6 are affected by eating behaviors associated with pica.

Pica is common among people with developmental disabilities or brain injuries, and it can also be triggered by lack of nutrients or no specific reason at all. A child could like a certain texture, taste, or maybe even the attention they receive when they eat something strange. People with pica are drawn toward eating things like dirt, paper, clay, chalk, hair, paint, ice, sand, soap, or feces.

When a child eats something they isn&;t supposed to as a result of pica, it can cause pain, nausea, vomiting, bloating, fatigue, or other symptoms. If the substance is dangerous, they can get an infection or accidentally poison themself. If your child often tries to eat non-food items, it’s important to take them to a healthcare provider for evaluation and treatment. 

There isn’t a specific test for pica, but your healthcare provider will be able to evaluate your child to make sure there haven’t been any negative health effects from their eating patterns and refer you to a specialist who can work with you to help establish normal eating patterns. 

Sometimes pica will truly only be a phase that lasts a month or so, and sometimes it will go on for several months before disappearing. There are some cases in which it lasts into adulthood, but continued therapy can help reduce the negative side effects. In most cases, toddlers who put non-food items in their mouths are just exploring, but occasionally, toddlers who regularly engage in these behaviors, especially with a specific substance, can benefit from talking through the issue with a healthcare provider.

  • “Pica.” MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. February 21, 2016. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001538.htm
  • “Pica.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation. April 2014. http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/pica.html#
  • “Toddler/Preschooler Safety Tips.” University of Rochester Medicine. Golisano Children’s Hospital. Accessed May 31, 2017. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/childrens-hospital/safety/age-tips/toddler-safety.aspx
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