My toddler has been trying to eat nonfood items, such as rocks and dirt. Should I be worried?
It's not uncommon for children, especially toddlers, to put nonfood items into their mouths. Your child is probably enjoying the independence of getting around and making his own choices as far as food is concerned. When this goes beyond the occasional sand from the sandbox, however, you are right to be concerned. It may suggest an eating disorder known as pica, a condition characterized by persistent and, for some children, compulsive eating of nonfood items.
The eating of nonfood items is generally diagnosed as pica when the behavior has been consistent for at least a month. Common items that may be consumed are dirt, rocks, paint chips, paper, sand and coffee grounds. Some of these are harmless in small quantities; others can cause serious medical conditions, such as infections, lead poisoning, bowel obstruction or dental problems. It is important to talk to your pediatrician promptly if you notice your child consuming nonfood items with any regularity. Of course, if your child has ingested a harmful or poisonous substance, seek professional medical care immediately by calling your local Poison Control center at (800) 222-1222.
Your child's doctor will try to discern why your child is eating these items. Is he doing it when he is bored or nervous? You can divert your child to other activities in addition to offering plenty of healthy food choices. Is he craving these nonfood items? It has been suggested, although not proven, that the cravings often associated with pica are related to dietary deficiencies such as a lack of iron or zinc. Although any child can have pica, it is more common in children with mental retardation, autism and other developmental disorders. Your pediatrician can investigate these and other potential causes, and will come up with personalized treatment that is right for your child.
Whatever the cause, it's important to be patient, as it will take time for your child to learn new habits. It is good to remember that most children will grow out of the behavior by the time they are 3 years old.