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Pregnancy can bring about a whole bunch of wonderful experiences, but also some very weird experiences. The desire for specific food or food combinations, (pickles and ice cream anyone?) in pregnancy is fairly common. The cause is a mystery and there is no evidence that food cravings are the result of nutritional deficiencies. Some feel it may be a hormonal or emotional response.

Some pregnant women have cravings to eat non-food items. This eating disorder is known as pica. It is typically defined as the persistent eating of non-nutritive (non-food) substances. Pica is the Latin word for the magpie, a bird that eats or carries away odd objects.

Eating these items can be dangerous to both the mother and the baby, or interfere with adequate nutrient intake. If you experience these types of cravings, discuss them with your doctor.

Women with Pica have been reported to ingest a wide variety of non-food substances, including, but not limited to:

  • Ice (pagophagia)
  • Sand (geophagia)
  • Vinyl gloves
  • Needles
  • String
  • Pencil erasers
  • Light bulbs
  • Gravel
  • Flaking paint or plaster
  • Laundry starch (amylophagia)
  • Coal
  • Cigarette ashes
  • Clay
  • Rocks
  • Chalk
  • Hair
  • Glue

Pica is not only a disorder which appears in pregnant women, it can appear in all adults and small children, especially among children who are developmentally disabled. It is thought to be the body's way of reacting to iron, calcium or zinc deficiencies.

Although other reasons also include mental or physical illness, or malnutrition due to an eating disorder. Women who experienced pica as children are in danger of it resurfacing during pregnancy.

How is pica diagnosed?
Depending on the degree of pica displayed, the condition could be difficult to identify in pregnant women. If a woman eats easy digestibly substances in small quantities it might not be detected by the doctor as she might be too embarrassed to tell. She also may not show signs of malnutrition if she is eating a balanced diet.

Other signs and symptoms of pica may include loss of appetite, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhoea, recurrent infections and/or parasitic infestations, and dental injuries.

If you have acute and chronic cravings for any non-food substances during pregnancy you should tell your doctor. Also if you have eaten non-food substances and you experience abdominal pain or severe constipation you should call your doctor immediately.

There is no specific medical test that can confirm pica but in more serious cases Pica could be diagnosed if the patient has intestinal blockages, show signs of lead poisoning and through x-rays.
Before making a diagnosis of Pica, the doctor will rule out any mental disorders.

Pica in pregnant women is sometimes only diagnosed after childbirth because of a health problem in the newborn caused by the substances ingested by the mother. Complications of pica include malnutrition in the mother and foetus, lead poisoning, intestinal infections or parasites from soil, intestinal obstruction and bowel perforation, anemia, liver and kidney damage and constipation and abdominal problems.

Supplementation with iron-containing vitamins has been shown to cause the unusual cravings to subside in some iron-deficient patients.Pica that develops during pregnancy usually resolves on its own once the mother gives birth.

How can pica be prevented?
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, an adequate amount of protein and carbohydrates.
  • Make sure to take a daily prenatal vitamin, which will contain iron and folic acid.
  • Make sure you visit your doctor for all your scheduled antenatal visits.
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