Q: My 5 year old son wont stop eating dirt. How can I stop him and is it really hurting him?
A: While it’s developmentally appropriate for children under the age of 2 to put things in their mouths and to bite, chew, or try to eat non-food items, those who ingest things such as dirt, ice, clay, glue, sand, or hair for at least one month may be diagnosed with a condition called pica. It occurs most commonly in children, pregnant women, and people with autism or other developmental disabilities. Although it’s precise cause is unknown, pica may be associated with a nutritional deficiency or psychological disorder, and/or may relate to cultural or socioeconomic status.
Eating dirt can contribute to gastric pain and occasional bleeding. It can also increase the risk for infection since dirt can be contaminated with animal feces or urine other potentially harmful substances.
A recent study found that between 1999 and 2009, the number of hospitalizations for pica almost doubled from 964 to 1,862, respectively. In 2009, 31 percent of childhood pica cases were found in autistic children.
According to the National Institutes of Health, in many cases pica lasts several months and resolves on it’s own without intervention or treatment. But because a condition like pica can interfere with your child’s growth, especially if it contributes to or signals a nutritional deficiency or other health problem, it’s wise to consult with a pediatrician. Treatments can vary and may include nutritional, behavioral, and psychological counseling.