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Pica (eating non-edible items)

  • Feeding and eating
Young baby sitting on the beach, bringing their right hand up to their mouth and eating sand

Pica is a medical term for when children eat non-edible items. Common items that children with pica eat can include sand, chalk, playdough, clothing, faeces, hair and paper.

Understanding pica

Children below the age of 18 months explore objects by mouthing and sometimes swallowing. Due to this, pica is not diagnosed below the age of 2 years.

Pica is more common in certain groups of the population and occurs more frequently in children with learning difficulties. It is associated with autism spectrum disorder. 

It may also be caused by a child getting a pleasurable feeling or sensory stimulation from eating non-food items. Some nutritional factors, such as low levels of iron or zinc are also thought to be linked with pica. 

Most ingested items pass through the gut with no problem. However, occasionally it can cause significant health problems causing blockages in the gut, poisoning, constipation, infections, choking, and nutritional and dental problems. 

What you can do to help

  • Keep a record of what your child eats and share this with those involved in your child’s care.
  • Keep track of how often your child displays pica behaviour.
  • Keep a list of the places and situations where your child puts things in their mouth.
  • Keep non-food items, that your child frequently attempts to eat, out of their sight.
  • Put locks on cabinets that contain possible pica objects.
  • Vacuum floors daily to reduce items on the floor that your child might eat.
  • Enrich your child’s environment. During downtime, provide access to things your child likes to do that do not include pica items.
  • Teach danger awareness skills. Have your child practice identifying things that are non-edible or dangerous.

Behavioural strategies

Last reviewed: 1 November, 2023


Who can help

If you have any questions or concerns, a health professional in our team will be able to offer advice and support. You can call us on 0300 029 50 50.

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Two toddlers eating fruit sitting at a child's table in a nursery setting. A carer is sitting behind them.

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