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Why does my granddaughter eat dirt?
Q: I have a 22-month-old granddaughter who insists on eating dirt or mud if she is outside. The doctor said she will outgrow it and recommended that we give her water to wash it down. She has a very good diet and eats a variety of foods. Should we worry?
A: Eating dirt is common in young children, usually from 1 to 6 years of age. It’s called “pica,” and children may eat many non-food substances including dirt, mud, clay, sand, bricks, paint chips, plaster, chalk, cornstarch, baking soda, coffee grounds, cigarette butts, ashes, match heads, rust, glue, toothpaste and animal droppings.

Why does this happen? Infants and toddlers are curious and explore their environment by putting their hands, objects and other materials in their mouths. Most infants and toddlers try eating dirt, and only some persist with the behavior. Sometimes pica is a result of nutritional deficiency (e.g., not enough food, or low iron or zinc in their diet), emotional stress or a developmental problem. But in many cases, a cause is not identified.

As the doctor said, it’s usually not a big problem and your granddaughter will probably outgrow it. But you want to try to prevent her from eating dirt as much as possible because she could get lead poisoning, intestinal parasites and even intestinal blockage. Talk with your granddaughter about how food is good to eat, but dirt is not. Inside the house, remove plants from her reach, repair any areas with chipping paint and make sure toxic substances such as cigarettes, matches, cleaning products, chemicals and medications are out of her reach. Outside the house, take her to play on grass and playgrounds where she can’t get her hands on dirt. If she plays in a sandbox, supervise her closely to prevent her from eating sand.

Talk with the doctor again about possible causes of her pica. Although you say your granddaughter has a healthy diet, which is a good start, ask the doctor whether she might need a blood test for anemia, iron and lead. Consider giving her a daily children’s multivitamin to see if it might reduce her pica. Have the doctor assess her overall development. And think about whether there might be any stress at home or elsewhere that you might be able to reduce.