Pica is a medical condition wherein a person continuously attempts to eat non-food items. This includes paper, ice, paint chips, and dirt, among other things. Pica is a diagnosis for children above 2 years old because this behavior is still normal for children less than 2 years old. Common causes of pica include nutrient deficiencies, developmental problems, teething, and neglect. If left untreated, pica can lead to complications such as anemia, malnutrition, gastrointestinal issues, infections, and injuries.
You just made a quick visit to the bathroom while your child plays around in your home office. A few minutes later, you come back and witness them eating paper right before your very own eyes! What should you do next?
Let’s get acquainted with this common condition.
What is pica?
The act of eating non-food or non-digestible items is called pica. Some commonly ingested objects are dirt, hair, wood, ice, chalk, or paint chips.
If it’s specifically paper, the condition is called xylophagia. Pica is diagnosed if these symptoms happen continuously for at least one month.
Is it normally seen in children?
Pica can be normal in children aged 6 to 10 months old. At this stage, infants become more curious about their environment. One way they learn about their surroundings is to grab things, sometimes to the point of placing objects in their mouth.
For those aged 2 years old or older, there’s a higher chance that it’s abnormal.
Accompanying symptoms in pica include diarrhea or constipation, bloody or blood-tinged stools, or abdominal pain.
Why do babies eat paper? What can I do about it?
Pica can be due to several reasons. As much as 25-30% of diagnosed cases worldwide are children, usually 1-6 years old. The exact cause of pica is not known, but there are several conditions linked to it:
1. Micronutrient deficiencies
Some studies have linked pica to low levels of vitamin B, vitamin C, zinc, calcium, or iron in the body. Eating paper and other objects seems to be the body’s way of coping with nutrient deficiencies and even hunger.
The best way to combat micronutrient deficiencies is to provide a well-balanced and nutritious meal, depending on the child’s age. Healthy snacks with well-defined or unique textures, like pasta or crunchy vegetables, can also keep them interested in snacking rather than eating on paper.
Healthcare providers may opt to prescribe multivitamins or additional supplements to quickly address these deficiencies.
2. Developmental disabilities
In children diagnosed with obsession-compulsion spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, autism, intellectual disabilities, and other developmental disorders, pica is the most common type of eating disorder.
Typically, further medical evaluation by a qualified healthcare provider is done to confirm and assess any developmental disorders or disabilities. But one way to help steer them away from eating paper is to give other safer means to let go of the urge to chew.
You can give them oral sensory toys. For older kids, this urge can be relieved with the simple act of chewing gum.
For parents and guardians, it may be helpful to find out any patterns to this behavior. If you notice a recurring trigger for eating paper, then avoiding these situations will help lessen pica episodes.
Sometimes the answer is simple for children less than 1 year old: your baby’s teeth hurt and need soothing. Because it can be uncomfortable at any point during the day, they will get the nearest toy (or paper!) next to them as a makeshift pacifier.
A few good solutions to this are to:
- Make breastfeeding more frequent
- Rub a clean, cool cloth or a small piece of ice on their gums
- Give chilled fruit for them to chomp on
Schedule feeding time every two hours to avoid hunger. Teething toys are also another alternative.
4. Parental neglect
Unfortunately, pica is more commonly seen in children in lower socioeconomic classes and those with a history of neglect or abuse.
Toddlers have a lot of pent-up energy best used for exploring the world around them. Ensuring they are well cared for doesn’t simply mean providing a house, food, and water. This also includes proper care and bonding activities, when possible. Encourage your child to try reading, writing, or rediscovering old games when they (or us!) were little.
Are there any complications from eating paper?
If not treated in time, pica can have dangerous effects on young children. These are:
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Diarrhea, constipation, or intestinal blockage
- Bacterial or viral infections
- Lead poisoning
- Wounds and injuries on the mouth or teeth
Is paper edible?
Clean, plain paper is typically made of fiber. This can pass through the stomach and intestines but are not really digested by the system. It is edible but has no nutritional value.
My child eats paper. When should I bring them to the doctor?
If your child is more than 2 years old and consistently tries to eat non-food items for more than a month, it’s better to have them checked by a healthcare provider. They may request laboratory tests to rule out complications, such as blood tests and x-rays.
If necessary, they may refer your child to a mental health specialist to manage this condition. Doctors may also prescribe certain medicines or supplements if there is a nutritional problem involved.
Pica is the act of consistently eating non-food items in children 2 years old and above. This can be due to nutrient deficiencies, developmental or intellectual disabilities, or neglect.
Because pica can lead to various medical complications, it’s best to see a doctor if you notice that your child keeps on eating paper for at least a month despite your efforts for them to stop. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry!