My child wants to put everything in his mouth
Bill Schneider, MD, is medical director of Banner Thunderbird's Pediatric Emergency Department. His office can be reached at 602-865-3863.
Question: My 1-year-old son is very curious and puts any and everything he can into his mouth. As a first-time mother, at what point should I become concerned that my son's curiosity may actually be a sign of pica?
Answer: It's perfectly normal for young children to put things into their mouths. It's a natural expression of their curiosity and one of the ways they begin to learn about the world around them. Children with pica, however, are no longer trying to express their curiosity, but rather are trying to satisfy a compulsive craving. Pica is a real eating disorder that is characterized by persistent cravings for non-food items, such as dirt, clay, chalk, plaster, glue, paper and toothpaste, among others, for more than a month.
As many as 30 percent of children between the ages of 1 and 6 years develop some degree of pica. A few factors believed to increase the risk of pica in children include physical and mental developmental difficulties, brain injuries, malnutrition or nutritional deficiencies, lack of supervision, food deprivation and even some cultural factors.
Not all non-food items are dangerous to consume, but that doesn't and shouldn't detract from the potential seriousness of the disorder. Pica, if left uncontrolled, has been known to lead to lead poisoning (from eating paint chips), bowel problems, intestinal obstruction or perforation, infections and dental damage.
A child's continuous consumption of non-food items, despite attempts to restrict access to them, as well as behavior that seems inappropriate for a child's stage of development are some of the warning signs of pica.
Parents who suspect that their child may have pica should contact their health-care provider, who can help develop a plan to effectively address and prevent unhealthy eating behaviors. It is extremely important that parents who suspect that their child has consumed a harmful object or substance to seek medical care immediately at the nearest hospital emergency room.