Jessica Daniels (names have been changed) thought it was strange that her son Miles liked to eat paper. But he was only three, and kids that age are often putting any and everything into their mouth.
She dismissed the habit as behavioural. She figured he would grow out of it or that he did it just to get attention. One day, on a whim, she mentioned it to her son’s pediatrician, who had another opinion. A blood test revealed that Miles was suffering from iron deficiency.
“I could just kick myself for not thinking that eating paper might be more than behavioural,” says Jessica. “I never would have guessed that his body was craving iron.”
Miles has since been taking iron supplements and a multivitamin. Jessica was also advised to incorporate more meat and green vegetables into his diet, which are both good sources of iron.
Keep an eye out
If you notice that your child has crazy cravings, don’t assume he just wants your undivided attention, says Toronto pediatrician Dr. Beverly Kupfert. “Eating anything other than food is not normal, and parents should keep their eye on it.” There is no clear cut correlation between what kids eat and the deficiency or condition they have, says Dr. Kupfert, but sometimes, certain cravings can hint at possible unmet dietary needs. For instance, cravings for paper products, ice chips or dirt may be a sign of iron deficiency.
If you think there is a problem, see your doctor, who will conduct investigations to determine if your child has iron deficiency or lead intoxication. If it’s related to a medical condition, treatment will be directed at the cause, says Dr. Kupfert.
“We’re not talking about kids under a year of age. It is normal for babies to put everything in their mouth as part of an oral stage of development.”
Rare but not unheard of
- Weird food cravings could be diagnosed as a condition called pica, a medical term for when people eat things that are not edible, such as dirt, paper, dried paint or buttons. According to some experts, it affects up to 30 percent of children ages one to six.
- Although pica is a rare condition, it can occur in young children or in those who have developmental challenges such as autism, brain injury or obsessive-compulsive disorder, says Toronto pediatrician Dr. Beverly Kupfert.
- The condition can be dangerous because if the child is ingesting something hazardous, such as a small toy, it could lead to a toxic exposure. Some objects, like buttons, pose a choking risk or can cause an intestinal blockage.
- Pica may require behavioural as well as dietary modification. Remove any dangerous objects or non-food items from your child’s reach.
Originally published in ParentsCanada, April 2012