Pica is an eating disorder. Children who have pica eat items that are not food such as dirt, ice, bugs, wall plaster, paint chips, hair, and other items. Many young children try nonfood items such as eating some dirt out of their sandbox. However, children with pica disorder keep eating nonfood items for at least one month.
Pica is sometimes related to a mineral or vitamin deficiency, such as pregnant women who are deficient in iron, zinc, or calcium. Sometimes, children with pica have family, ethnic, or religious customs that include eating a particular non-food substance.
This disorder is rare and occurs most often in infants and young children. Pica most often starts when a child is 18 to 24 months old. Pica is more likely if a child has other developmental delays. Pica typically lasts for just a few months. It may last longer in a child who has developmental problems.
Children who eat non-food items may have physical symptoms. For example, eating bugs might give a child nausea. Constantly eating lead-based paint chips might cause lead poisoning. Pica can cause malnutrition, a thin body, and mineral or vitamin deficiencies.
There is no test for pica. It is often diagnosed when a parent or childcare provider sees the child eating nonfood items. It might also be diagnosed when a child is treated for poisoning or a blockage in the digestive system. The healthcare provider will do a complete physical exam and ask about the child's symptoms and behavior. Your child may need X-rays or blood tests.
Treatment depends on the cause of the pica, if known. For example, mineral supplements may be given to treat iron or zinc deficiency. Counseling or behavior therapy may be helpful.
Pay close attention to what your child eats, both at home and in child care settings. Change the child's behavior by rewarding or praising good behavior and punishing bad behavior. For example, by looking stern, and giving a brief, direct instruction, such as "No" or "Stop that." If pica continues, consider behavioral therapy.
If your child has stomach pain or bloating, lack of bowel movements, or symptoms of infection, call your healthcare provider right away.