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May 08, 2018

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Pica During Pregnancy

Strange cravings are one of the fun parts of being pregnant. When else can you mix ice cream and pickles and feel good about it or not be judged? But what if the cravings go overboard to include nonfood items? There is a condition known as pica, and it’s common during pregnancy. Women experiencing pica might find themselves wanting to eat like dirt, clay or even paper. Even though you may laugh at the thought, it is a serious condition. It’s important to understand what pica is and how to manage these cravings to protect both the mother and child. Woman looking inside refrigerator

What Is Pica?

Pica is defined as the pattern of eating nonfood items like dirt or paper. It’s a condition that tends to occur in children but pregnancy can trigger it. It’s not entirely clear why this happens but in some cases it might be a response to the lack of certain critical nutrients like iron or zinc in your diet.

Cravings, whether they are for food or nonfood items, typically start in the initial 12 weeks of pregnancy. They tend to peak in the second trimester between weeks 13 to 28 and subside in the third trimester starting at week 29.

Pica Cravings

Just like other pregnancy cravings, pica varies from woman to woman and even from pregnancy to pregnancy. The most common substance craved is dirt, clay, and laundry starch.  Some of the other more common cravings include:

  • Soap
  • Paint chips
  • Ashes
  • Clothes or fabric
  • Plants
  • Paper
  • Coffee grounds
  • Cornstarch
  • Baking soda
  • Charcoal

As you look down the list, it’s not hard to see how dangerous pica is to both the mother and baby. Eating these substances can lead to infections, cardiac problems and exposure to toxic chemicals.

How to Help Manage Pica During Pregnancy

One thing to remember is that pica does happen and it not abnormal. It is difficult to know how many women experience these strange cravings because many go unreported. The most important thing you can do is to inform your health care provider about your cravings. A 2003 study published in the American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing found around 38 percent of the participants experienced pica. Here are some suggestions how to help you deal with pica cravings:

  • Talk to your health care provider and review your prenatal health records
  • Monitor your iron along with other vitamin and mineral intake
  • Consider potential substitutions for the cravings such as chewing sugarless gum
  • Some women find eating ice helps curb the cravings

Risk Factors for Pica

Now you may be wondering, am I at risk for developing pica? There are some patterns seen in pregnancy-related pica behavior. For one thing, women who live in a rural setting may be more prone to it. It also tends to run in families, so if your mother or grandmother experienced it, and risks are higher among African American women.

There is also an unproven association between pica and anemia. It is possible the body is looking to fill a need for iron. If experiencing pica, it’s important to tell the doctor about it, so any anemia issues can be resolved.

Does the Pica End Once You Give Birth?

For most women, all cravings can disappear in the third trimester including those that come with pica. However, pica is a mental health condition, as well, so if you continue to experience it after giving birth, it might be an eating disorder that requires further treatment.

Since eating nonfood items is potentially harmful, it’s critical that you talk to your doctor about the cravings, whether they happen before, during or after your pregnancy to rule out nutritional deficiencies and treat the condition. It can be embarrassing to admit you crave or even eat things like dirt, so it’s important to know this issue is common and worth talking about to protect your health and your baby’s health.



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