Exploring the world using our five senses is important for young children. When it comes to “taste” and “touch,” it is expected that infants will put objects in their mouth. This may continue all the way through toddlerhood. Some children will continue to put objects in their mouth—including things that are not food or things that may hurt them—past the time when they should understand what is and is not okay to put in their mouths.
Children about 2 years and older who repeatedly put objects that are not food in their mouth—and try to eat these objects—have a condition called “pica.” Pica is a problem because chewing and swallowing objects that are not food, such as paper, wood, metal, and dirt, can be immediately harmful and can lead to other longer term health problems (like lead poisoning and stomach damage). Eating nonfood items may be a sign that a child is experiencing a problem with development such as not being able to tell the difference between food and other objects. It could also be a sign that a child is missing important vitamins or minerals from their food and as a result, are trying to get those nutrients in another way. It is important that families understand what to do when they first notice their child eating more than just food.
Start to notice when your child tries to eat something that isn’t food. Write down what it was, when it happened, and anything else you noticed about the situation. You might notice that your child was hungry and tried to eat a food wrapper—if so, maybe all they needed was their next snack a little sooner. Paying attention will help you “catch” when they are putting things in their mouth.
Prevent What You Can
Often families safety-proof their rooms so that certain items—like medicine and cleaning products—are out-of-reach or behind a closed door. Start to look around your rooms and ask “How can I prevent my child from eating something that they shouldn’t?” You may see areas that you never think about like the plant in your living room (leaves and dirt), or the pile of mail on the table (paper) that could be harmful if your child chewed and swallowed it.
It’s impossible to think of every object to put away, or you wouldn’t have anything in your living space! But taking steps early on to get objects put away can help.
Replace With Something Safe
Some kids may chew an item because they like the way it feels: for example, a toy made of rubber that breaks into pieces in their mouth. Ask yourself, “What can I replace this with that is safe for my child to have in their mouth? “ Some companies make chewy necklaces and other items that are made so they do not break into pieces when chewed. This provides a safe option to get a similar sensation as chewing on their toy.
Give them Immediate Feedback
If you see your child put something in their mouth that is not food, tell them immediately that it is not okay. You can say “No!” or “Not for mouth!” Use a calm, neutral tone of voice. Take the object away from them so they know you mean what you said. Try to give them another activity to do or replace the object with something that is safe for their mouth, if you can.
Even better, look for a time when your child does not have anything in their mouth and praise them! You can say “Good job not mouthing!” or “Good clean mouth!” This feedback should make them want to follow the rules to get more positive attention.
Talk with Your Pediatrician
Talking with a trusted healthcare provider like a pediatrician or family doctor is a good step to see if your child has any health problems. The pediatrician can tell you what is normal as part of your child’s development, and they can also connect you with other clinicians like a behavior therapist or psychologist who can give you more support to keep your child from eating things that are not food.
It is especially important to reach out to a professional when your child is eating things that may hurt them —like glass, coins, or bodily waste—so that you can get them immediate help.
Most children will grow out of the habit of eating things that are not food, but some kids will need extra support to break the habit. There are many things you can do before a trip to the doctor—like pay attention and prevent what you can—and even more ways to guide your child to more healthy behaviors, like finding a safe replacement and giving them feedback. Behaviors like this respond best to a consistent response, so try to pick how you want to respond and stick with it!
For more information, check out:
Tams, S. T. (2023, March 1). When kids eat more than just food. Retrieved from https://infoaboutkids.org/blog/when-kids-eat-more-than-just-food