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 pica in young children

The name "Pica" comes from the Latin word for magpie, a bird known for its large and indiscriminate appetite. Children with Pica often crave and eat non-food items. Young children commonly eat leaves, chalk, lint, paint chips, dirt, sand, glue, small objects found on the floor, and paper.

Pica is more common in children with epilepsy, mental retardation, or mental illness and affects approximately 10-20% of children at one time or another in their lives.

There is no known cause of Pica but some children are more at risk for developing Pica than others. Children who live in poverty, lack parental supervision, or who are developmentally delayed develop Pica more often than children who are not exposed to these factors. There is some speculation that some children with Pica may be experiencing nutritional deficits, such as low iron or zinc. Most frequently, however, Pica is considered a mental health or emotional disturbance and not a medical condition.

Most young children consume non-edibles in the early years because they are still in an exploratory stage that includes oral-motor stimulation. It is not uncommon to see a young child stuff a handful of sand into his or her mouth while playing outside, or to see a young child try to eat beads. This does not mean the child has Pica.


You might be concerned if the child consumes non-edible items over at least a month or more and the child is not in a developmental stage of oral exploration.

Young children are naturally curious about their environment, and they may, for instance, eat some dirt out of their sandbox. Yet children with pica go beyond this innocent exploration of their surroundings.

If you are working with a child with Pica, be alert to exposure to items that may contain lead. Watch for bowel problems, parasite infections, and/or intestinal obstruction or perforation. Make sure cleaning products, medications, and household chemicals are in a safe location that the child cannot reach.

Pica is typically addressed through a cognitive-behavioral approach where the child is taught what is, and is not, acceptable to eat. Correct behavior can be positively reinforced while eating of non-edibles can be discouraged.

Dr. Catherine Swanson Cain, PhD, LMFT  offers online therapy and consultation on a variety of behavior, mental health, or family and child issues. With over 25 years experience, she offers online therapy, classes, and consultation in addition to the free information she offers here. Visit PediatricBehavior to find out more or to schedule an email or online session.

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Revised: 10/19/2008.