How to tell if your child might have pica

While pop culture and PSAs have succeeded in publicizing health issues like bulimia and binge eating, there are other eating disorders a parent should also be aware of.

Pica is one example, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. A little unusual in our modern world (though perhaps more common in less developed societies, NEDA noted), the disorder involves eating items that are not typically considered food and that lack significant nutritional value. Examples include hair, dirt and paint chips.

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New parents may recall warnings from the OB-GYN that pregnant women can suffer from pica symptoms and that moms-to-be should always report cravings (however bizarre) to their health care provider to avoid pica-induced health complications.

But the same eating disorder can affect children, adolescents, adult males and females who aren't pregnant, according to NEDA. Pica often occurs alongside other mental health disorders associated with impaired functioning, including intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia.

Two common causes of pica in children are iron-deficiency anemia and malnutrition.

"In these individuals, pica is a sign that the body is trying to correct a significant nutrient deficiency," NEDA noted. "Treating this deficiency with medication or vitamins often resolves the problems."

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While a parent probably doesn't need to worry if a toddler has an "if I can fit it in my mouth, I will taste it" mindset, there are times when your offspring should be evaluated for pica.

According to NEDA, here's how to tell if your child might have pica:

Warning signs of pica in children:

  • The child persistently eats substances that are not food and do not provide nutritional value over a period of at least a month. Typical substances ingested in this way will probably vary with the child's age and what's available to her, but could include paper, soap, cloth, hair, string, wool, soil, chalk, talcum powder, paint, gum, metal, pebbles, charcoal, ash, clay, starch or ice.
  • Ingesting the substance is not part of what NEDA calls "culturally supported or socially normative practice," like a child whose culture promotes eating clay as part of a medicinal practice.
  • The substance-ingesting is developmentally inappropriate. "In children under two years of age, mouthing objects (putting small objects in their mouth) is a normal part of development, allowing the child to explore their senses," NEDA said. "Mouthing may sometimes result in ingestion. In order to exclude developmentally-normal mouthing, children under two years of age should not be diagnosed with pica."

Note, too, that a child not being interested in eating much food does not qualify as a warning sign of pica. "

Generally, those with pica are not averse to ingesting food," NEDA said.

If a parent's observations indicate that a child might have pica, the next step is getting the family pediatrician or health care provider involved. "A medical professional should assess if the behavior is sufficiently severe to warrant independent clinical attention... or determine that their actions do not indicate the need for separate clinical care." NEDA advised.

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