When is it a cause for concern if a child eats dirt

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Read on to find out when a child's seemingly innocuous habit of picking random things and putting it in his mouth is actually a cause for concern.

Toddlers, children, we all know how they are. Ever curious and constantly exploring their surroundings. At some point, you’ve probably wondered why your child eats dirt but dismissed it as an innocuous act that is part of childhood. But did you know that at times, this could be a sign of an underlying problem? 

If you find that your child eats dirt very frequently, he may have an eating disorder called pica. Children who have pica do not eat or put things in their mouth merely out of curiosity.

If your child eats dirt because of pica, it means that his curiosity leads to a compulsion to ingest non-food items.

What is pica? 

Pica is a Latin word for “Magpie”. If you didn’t already know, Magpies are birds that are known for their unusual and indiscriminate eating habits. Pica is the persistent habit of eating substances like dirt, paint, paper or chalk. The substances are non-food items with no nutritional value.

An estimated 10 to 30% of kids between the age of one to six suffer from this disorder. 

Pica is common in pregnant woman as well! So if you think that only your child eats dirt, apparently mums to be do it to! 

However, the bulk of children who develop pica are in the two to three year old age range. 

Characteristics of pica 

Now, having read this, don’t immediately panic if your child eats dirt. To consider it a case of Pisa, certain defining characteristics must be present.

  • Your child should not have a pre-existing mental condition such as autism, schizophrenia or Kleine-Levin syndrome
  • The eating of non food items must persist for more than a month when they are at a developmentally inappropriate age 
  • The eating should not be a practice that is considered acceptable by the family’s culture

If your child eats dirt only while they are suffering from a mental disorder (intellectual disability, pervasive developmental disorder, schizophrenia) it is serious enough for clinical attention.

child putting things in his mouth

If your child is putting things in his mouth and it’s not usually food, you might want to pay closer attention.

While children with pica might eat just about anything, there are some substances that they seem to ingest more commonly than others. These include:

  • clay
  • paint chips
  • dirt
  • sand
  • paper
  • ash 
  • soap
  • rocks
  • glass 
  • chalk
  • hair
  • glue
  • powders / starches 

Brace yourselves for this one – they even eat faeces!

They key defining factor of pica is not so much if your child eats dirt, it’s more of the repetitive consumption of the substance. 

Why does pica occur?

There are many reasons for children to develop pica. In some parts of the world, people view pica as a normal, ‘culture-bound’ syndrome. But in most cases, pica is caused by mineral deficiencies or mental disabilities. 

Here are some of the common causes:

  • Mineral deficiency such as iron or zinc
  • Celiac disease or hookworm can also cause pica to occur
  • Chemical imbalance in the brain or brain injury
  • Attention-seeking behaviour
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder 
  • Maternal deprivation, poverty or neglect

How to treat pica?

Regardless of why pica occurs or why your child eats dirt, you must get it treated as soon as possible. Otherwise, it might lead to more serious physical and emotional issues. 

Your child may ingest dirt or other harmful substances and depending on what they consumed, pica can result in severe complications like intoxication that leads to physical or mental impairment, lead poisoning, surgical emergencies, dental injury, nutritional deficiencies, parasitises, intestinal obstruction, perforation and bowel problems.

child eats dirt

Pica can be a huge problem if left untreated.

A paediatrician will diagnose your child by testing his blood and lead levels, checking haemoglobin for anaemia, checking for infection, taking x-rays to identify what they consumed and collecting samples of their urine and stool. 

Here are some ways to treat pica:

  • Expand your child’s vocabulary and communication skills so that he can better explain his needs and wants to you
  • Have a pica box full of consumable items that your child can choose from as opposed to eating dirt and random things 
  • When your child avoids pica practice positive reinforcement 
  • Mete negative chore-based punishments when your child eats dirt and other random things
  • Restrain your child when he displays pica behaviour, or use time-outs

Sometimes it may be a relatively easy task to get rid of your child’s pica behaviour but not everyone is as lucky. For some, they need to work with professionals and need more complicated techniques. Remember, patience is key. 

Stay positive and always encourage your child whatever the method of treatment is. 

Preventing Pica 

Of course, prevention is better than cure so if your child eats dirt, nip the problem in the bud or if possible, don’t let it happen at all. And how do you do that?

  • Explain to your child what is safe and unsafe for consumption
  • Talk to your child about what food and non-food substances are
  • Tell them the consequences of eating non-food substances are
  • Store things that they often eat (eg: chalk) far from their reach
  • Ensure that your child has an abundance of well-balanced and nutritious meals and snacks

Mums and dads, if your child eats dirt, keep a close watch. If you feel that something seems amiss, it wouldn’t hurt to get him checked!

Source: Everyday Family

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