This article is reviewed by a team of registered dietitians and medical doctors with extensive, practical clinical and public health experience.
Pregnancy Pica: What Is Pica In Pregnancy, Causes & Treatment 2023
You’ve probably heard about the common cravings some women have when they’re expecting a baby, like pickles and ice cream. But did you know that some crave other things besides food and may give in to eating them?
If you’re a pregnant woman and you’ve found yourself having unusual cravings and eating non-food substances, like laundry starch, dirt, and ice chips, you may be experiencing pica disorder.
Pica can affect you even if you aren’t pregnant and may be a sign of a medical or mental condition. Eating things that aren’t food can affect your health, and it’s essential to take a prenatal vitamin to help provide essential nutrients that may help you have a healthy pregnancy.
This article will look at what causes pica among pregnant women, how eating non-food items may have nutritional consequences and associated risks for you or your growing baby, and if there’s any treatment for the disorder.
What Is Pica In Pregnancy?
Pica is a medical term that comes from the Latin word pica pica, which is their version of a magpie, a bird known for having an expansive food palate and eating almost anything when they’re hungry.
Pica is a condition of craving and eating non-food items. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes it as a compulsive and persistent eating disorder for at least one month that affects black women four times as much as white women. Pica can appear during any trimester and can become a serious problem. What a mother is eating during pregnancy can directly determine the health of her and her baby.
The Most Common Pica Cravings In Pregnancy
The American Pregnancy Association tells us that the most common pica cravings are laundry starch, dirt, and clay. Chewing ice is also common, but here are some other non-food substances pregnant women find themselves yearning for:
- Baby powder.
- Paint chips.
- Burnt matches.
- Cigarette ashes.
- Metal items like coins.
- Coffee grounds.
Baking soda, cornstarch, ice, and uncooked foods like raw starches are also on the hunger list that veers closer to food options but can still have unwanted consequences when consuming them.
Causes Of Pica In Pregnancy
The exact cause of pica during pregnancy is yet to be determined by research and may depend on each individual’s health. In some cultures and religions, eating some of these things is taught to be normal. Here are a few possibilities of why pregnant women might develop pica during pregnancy.
Craving and eating ice could simply be from dehydration, dry mouth, the need to chew, or to increase alertness and combat pregnancy fatigue. Chewing ice may also be a substitute for other bad habits, like smoking. However, studies this century and last continue to show results of those with pica cravings having lower iron than those without pica, which may be one reason for craving ice.
Pregnant women with sickle cell anemia, iron deficiency anemia, or low levels of other nutrients may find themselves craving items outside cultural norms with no nutritional value.
Pregnancy is complex and often results in nutrient deficiency. Dirt, soil, and other non-food items are sometimes high in zinc, calcium, and iron, and some people may instinctually crave these things to replenish their micronutrient levels.
Poverty may cause some to resort to non-food items to feel full when legitimate food is unattainable. Although more common in third-world countries, it is rare today in the developed world due to many government programs; however, it still occurs.
Mental Health Conditions
Pica is an eating disorder that occurs in people with mental disorders, but not everyone who experiences pica has a mental disorder. Common mental health conditions pica appears with include:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Developmental delay.
- Mental retardation.
- Psychiatric diseases.
One theory is that hormones rising and fluctuating may influence the development of pica during pregnancy. Some women report that without consuming the pica item, they feel uncomfortable or have nausea and vomiting.
Does Pica In Pregnancy Cause Any Risks?
Will pica affect your health, your growing baby, or your pregnancy? Eating small or large quantities of nonfood items with no nutritional value does come with risks, such as choking or dental injuries from hard, sharp, and chemical substances. Here are a few other complications that could occur:
It goes without saying, but let’s say it anyways, some non-food items may not be safe for consumption. They can contain a wide array of poisonous chemicals, toxic substances, and even parasites.
Ingesting things that are not food can result in heavy metal poisoning, especially from lead, which can result in brain damage, organ failure, and death.
Eating nonfood items can affect your digestive system in many ways. If you eat something that is not food, you may experience one of the following problems:
- Ulcers, which can also arise from vitamin deficiencies.
- Stomach, throat, or esophagus pain.
- Intestinal tears and obstructions.
- Bloody stools.
- Parasitic infections.
Malnutrition And Weight Loss
Consuming non-food items may make you feel full and take the place of real nutrient-dense food. Some of the things pregnant women with pica consume can inhibit both you and your baby from receiving what you need. Since people with pica usually continue to eat real food, too, the non-food items can bind with your food and keep your small intestine from absorbing essential nutrients, resulting in poor nutrition.
Not meeting your nutritional needs can lead to maternal malnutrition, weight loss, and raise the risk for:
- Intrauterine growth restriction.
- Low birth weight.
- Preterm birth.
- Prenatal and infant mortality.
How To Treat Pica In Pregnancy
Many people do not report their pica symptoms due to embarrassment or shame, so the first thing you should do if you recognize you are craving non-food items is to speak with a medical professional. Getting a health evaluation to rule out nutritional deficiencies or underlying physical conditions that may be causing pica is essential to finding safe and suitable treatment options for managing pica.
If your pica craving is for ice, consider blood tests for iron deficiency anemia to rule this out as the cause. If you are anemic, non-constipating iron supplements can help raise your iron levels during pregnancy. If you’ve been feeling fatigued, you’ll likely feel much better restoring the iron you need.
Sometimes taking care of the urge to chew may help treat the condition. For example, you can try replacing the non-food item you crave with safe and natural chewing gum, a silicone teether, or just aim to chew on really chewy, nutritional foods like carrots, celery, or whole grain crackers. Keeping your end goal in mind of having a healthy and thriving baby may help you in your decision-making.
Maintaining adequate hydration and eating food with high nutritional value during pregnancy can give you the best chance at a healthy pregnancy. Here are some foods full of vitamins and minerals to have in your daily balanced diet:
- Whole grains.
- Healthy Fats.
- Lean Proteins.
In some cases, behavioral, sensory, or aversion therapy is needed to help treat the condition with reward systems and ways to deter the mother from consuming the pica substance.
If you develop severe symptoms related to parasitic infections, poisoning, or bowel obstruction, antibiotics and surgery may be necessary for treatment, which can be risky during pregnancy.
The Bottom Line
Pica during pregnancy is the consistent craving and eating of non-food substances that can lead to health concerns for the mother and baby. Pregnant women with pica most commonly find themselves craving and eating clay, ice, dirt, and even incredibly toxic substances like paint chips and laundry detergent.
Eating nonfood substances comes with risks, like poisoning, tears or damage to the inside of your body, constipation, parasite infections, and nutrient deficiencies.
The jury is still out on the exact cause of pica during pregnancy, but anemia and poor nutrition may be at the top of the list, both of which may be treated during pregnancy. Neurosis or psychosis should be ruled out, too.
Pica cravings can be hard to control, so seeking professional medical advice from your healthcare provider to find the cause and establishing a support team and a healthy diet plan is crucial for ensuring this disorder does not get the best of you.
+ 5 sources
Health Canal avoids using tertiary references. We have strict sourcing guidelines and rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic researches from medical associations and institutions. To ensure the accuracy of articles in Health Canal, you can read more about the editorial process here
- Konlan, K.D., Abdulai, J.A., Konlan, K.D., Amoah, R.M. and Doat, A. (2020). Practices of pica among pregnant women in a tertiary healthcare facility in Ghana. Nursing Open, [online] 7(3), pp.783–792. doi:https://doi.org/10.1002/nop2.451.
- editor (2020). Pica Cravings During Pregnancy. [online] American Pregnancy Association. Available at: https://americanpregnancy.org/healthy-pregnancy/is-it-safe/unusual-cravings-pica/
- Lumish, R.A., Young, S.L., Lee, S., Cooper, E., Pressman, E., Guillet, R. and O’Brien, K.O. (2014). Gestational Iron Deficiency Is Associated with Pica Behaviors in Adolescents. The Journal of Nutrition, [online] 144(10), pp.1533–1539. doi:https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.114.192070.
- Rodrigues, N., Shih, S. and Cohen, L.L. (2019). Pica in Pediatric Sickle Cell Disease. Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, [online] 28(1), pp.6–15. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s10880-019-09671-x.
- Leung, A.K.C. and Hon, K.L. (2019). Pica: A Common Condition that is Commonly Missed – An Update Review. Current Pediatric Reviews, [online] 15(3), pp.164–169. doi:https://doi.org/10.2174/1573396315666190313163530.