Why Do Children Eat Dirt?

by Suzanne Robin

    Dirt never made anyone's list as part of a healthy diet for small children. So if your kid turns up his nose at peanut butter and jelly but goes outside and shovels dirt into his mouth, you probably wonder what the attraction is. Dirt isn't a pretty color and it certainly doesn't have a tempting aroma or taste. Then why do kids eat dirt? There can be several reasons, some serious and some not. When kids eat dirt frequently, his pediatrician might label this unappetizing habit as pica, a craving for non-nutritious substances.

    For some kids, eating dirt is just a matter of curiosity as to what it tastes like. If your kiddo eats an occasional dab of dirt, you can usually chalk it up to typical child behavior. But when dirt or other non-nutritional substances, such as starch or paper, become more than an occasional snack, it can indicate a nutritional problem, such as such as a zinc or iron deficiency or a developmental disorder. To meet the official criteria for geophagia, the name for pica that involves eating dirt or clay, this behavior has to last at least one month, but if your kid's regularly eating dirt, you're probably not going to wait that long to talk to his pediatrician about his new favorite snack.

    Don't panic if you find your 1-year-old happily munching on a handful of dirt; 75 percent of 1-year-olds put non-nutritive substances in their mouths. This percentage drops to 15 percent between ages 2 and 3, psychiatrists Benjamin and Virginia Sadock report in their textbook, "Kaplan and Sadock's Concise Textbook of Clinical Psychiatry." Between 10 to 32 percent of kids between the ages of 1 and 6 have pica, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Boys and girls are equally likely to develop pica, according to the Sadocks. Pica occurs more frequently in kids with developmental delays or autism.

    Most of the time, pica disappears within a few months on its own. If it doesn't, prepare for a difficult time of trying to control his cravings. It's not like you can rid your world of dirt, so you'll need to limit your little one's access to it. If he's old enough, talk to him about his habit and create a rewards system for not eating dirt, as you would for any other undesirable behavior. Work with your pediatrician to correct any nutritional deficits and for help with behavior modification.

    It's important to take pica seriously for several reasons. Pica can be a warning sign of a developmental or behavioral disorder. If the dirt contains lead from paint or other airborne substances, geophagia can cause lead poisoning, which can lead to permanent brain damage or disability. Eating dirt can also lead to intestinal parasites, malnutrition or an intestinal blockage from buildup of dirt and other matter that can clog up the intestines.

    About the Author

    Suzanne Robin is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology. She also has extensive experience working in home health with developmentally delayed or medically fragile children. Robin received her RN degree from Western Oklahoma State College. She has coauthored and edited numerous books for the Wiley "Dummies" series.

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