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Pica: Developmental Delays and Eating Disorders

Pica is an eating disorder typically defined as the persistent ingestion of nonnutritive substances for a period of at least 1 month at an age at which this behavior is developmentally inappropriate. Kids with pica have been reported to mouth and/or ingest a wide variety of nonfood substances, including, but not limited to, clay, dirt, sand, stones, pebbles, hair, feces, lead, laundry starch, vinyl gloves, plastic, pencil erasers, ice, fingernails, paper, paint chips, coal, chalk, wood, plaster, light bulbs, needles, string, cigarette butts, wire, and burnt matches.

Although pica is observed most frequently in children, it is the most common eating disorder in individuals with developmental disabilities. In some societies, pica is a culturally sanctioned practice and is not considered to be pathologic. Pica may be benign, or it may have life-threatening consequences.

Pica is observed more commonly during the second and third years of life and is considered developmentally inappropriate in children older than 18-24 months. Research suggests that pica occurs in 25%-33% of young children and 20% of children seen in mental health clinics.