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As your little one grows older and starts teething, you’ll find him exploring the world in a variety of ways – including putting different things in his mouth. Babies will often try to chew on new things during the teething process. This will include non-food items too; nothing is too ‘dirty’ or ‘yucky’ for the baby, including fallen toys, leftovers, and messy laundry! However, if your baby’s cravings for these non-food, non-nutritive substances seem unnatural or too strong, it is a cause for alarm. Your baby could have an alarming condition called PICA!
When your baby becomes mobile and starts crawling around the house, your chores become even more intensive! You now have to maintain hygiene in your house with greater rigour, especially the baby’s room. This is to make sure that your little one doesn’t put something unsanitary in his mouth. Yes, it is natural and even expected of your baby to put things in his mouth in this passing phase.
However, if your baby continues to mouth or swallow non-food things after he has turned 18 months old, there might be something wrong. As per paediatricians, if your kid craves and repeatedly tries to eat non-food things for more than a month, then he might have an alarming condition called PICA. This needs immediate medical attention.
What is PICA & What Causes it?
Pica is a nutritional disorder where the child has cravings for certain specific types of non-nutritive and non-food items. These include things like dirt, chalk, paper, hair and other items. There are a number of reasons why your little one could have Pica. These include:
- Nutrient deficiency
- Coping mechanism to deal with stress
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Autism, schizophrenia and some developmental disorders
Why is PICA Dangerous?
Well, the reasons behind the disorder itself are cause for concern. But the fact that children could be consuming these non-food items that can contain toxins is very alarming. The ingestion of such toxins can result in:
- Serious infections or blockages in the stomach and digestive tract
- Lead poisoning
- Damage to the kidneys or the liver
- Interference with a healthy diet as non-food objects can reduce appetite
- In extreme cases, it can even affect the physical and mental development of the child
How To Deal With PICA
One of the most common reasons for Pica is nutrient deficiencies for nutrients like Iron and Zinc. The treatment of this deficiency requires further testing by doctors. The good news is that Pica generally lasts for just a few months with timely intervention. If your child has Pica but has tested negative for nutrient deficiencies, proactivity on your end is necessary. Here are some more ways to deal with Pica in children:
1. Identify the Cause of the Cravings
Whenever your child indulges in behaviour typical to Pica, i.e. he tries to eat non-food items, try to ascertain his feelings and identify the cause for his cravings. If you can identify the cause, you can take steps towards dealing with this disorder. If your child is hungry, make him a healthy snack. Talk to him about how he can indicate his need for food and ask you for some instead of resorting to non-food items.
If stress or hunger aren’t the reasons behind Pica, try and ascertain his need/craving for these items by keeping track of his emotions and surroundings every time he tries to eat these toxic items.
2. Help Dissipate Pent-Up Energy
If your child is showing signs of stress and pent-up negative energy, help him expel this energy by doing some physical activity, i.e. running races, jumping, etc.
3. Use Positive Reinforcement
Simply trying to encourage your child to not consume non-food items can be more useful than we think. Gentle, firm words and a supportive approach can help kids learn to tackle such cravings. Punishment or scolding may only affect the child’s mental setup further.
PICA and Developmental Disorders
At times, Pica maybe a symptom of a yet undiagnosed disorder like Autism or OCD, as this behaviour is often seen in people with these disorders. As per experts, children with autism tend to eat non-food items due to the following reasons:
- Lack of ability to differentiate: The child might not be able to tell that what they are eating is not for consumption and is actually harming them. In such cases, try to teach your child to understand the difference between food and non-food items.
- Comfort and joy in the sensation of certain items: The sensation of certain items feels familiar and comforting to them and thus they resort to eating these ‘comfort foods’. You can use positive and negative reinforcement in such cases and additionally encourage your child to find comfort and familiarity in other ways (like a toy or a certain type of food).
Pica has also been classified as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder under which a person, despite knowing that a certain type of behaviour may be risky or harmful, will still indulge in the same. In such cases, it’s best to consult child psychologists/paediatricians for further examination, understanding and treatment. Additionally, make sure that your doctor checks for any infections or side effects in your child as a result of consuming these toxins. This will ensure your little one doesn’t face any harmful consequences.
Pica can be very worrisome and is also difficult to deal with. But it is certainly treatable, and with early intervention, your child can get cured quickly. Take care.