Pregnancy is a natural and reproductive process which comes with complications. Aside the complications, pregnancy equally comes with weird cravings, especially for non-food items.
This craving for and eating or smelling non-food items is referred to as pica (pronounced as pai.kuh).
Even though people who are not pregnant can experience pica, it is more common among pregnant women.
Medically, pica is classified as an eating disorder that makes the individual want to bite on substances that have no nutritional value.
It is an abnormal or a weird desire to eat substances that are normally not eaten.
As such, people with pica may crave for or eat various non-food items, some of which may not be edible at all.
For example ice cubes, dirt, burnt matches, wood, clay, chalk and soap.
Some pregnant women prefer inhaling smoke from vehicle exhaust pipes, smelling wet ground, hair, animal droppings and dried human excreta, etc. Suffice to say that pica is really a weird aspect of pregnancy.
Generally, pica may occur as a result of pregnancy, extreme stress, anxiety, developmental abnormalities, mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, cultural norms that make certain non-food items sacred as well as due to malnutrition, especially iron-deficiency anaemia. Pica in pregnancy may occur because the unborn baby has increased nutritional needs or the woman herself lacks certain vital nutrients.
The main symptom of pica is eating items that are not food or not edible. This is different from the exploring behaviour of children putting objects in their mouths. People who develop pica make conscious efforts to eat non-food items, leading to other symptoms such as broken or damaged teeth, stomachache, bloody stool and lead poisoning, among others.
Some health experts believe that pica is the body’s way of replacing deficient nutrients. This is one of the reasons why every pregnant woman must attend antenatal clinic to be assessed on her nutritional status.
Most pregnant women tend to hide the weird craving from health professionals and thus do not seek any medical treatment or nutritional intervention for it.
Most of them eat clay and other non—food items as a way of curbing or overcoming nausea or morning sickness.
What they do not know is that a pregnant woman should eat food to boost her nutritional status and that of the unborn baby or babies, so pica in pregnancy has the tendency to affect fetal growth and development.
Advisedly, a pica in pregnancy patient must see a doctor for treatment. Doctors will normally find out the cause of the weird craving for the non-food items.
Seeing a doctor for treatment provides an opportunity to assess the patient’s clinical history to understand any risk factors or symptoms related to the odd craving.
Blood and other tests may equally be done to ascertain whether the pica comes from nutritional deficits or not. Once the root causes of the pica have been clinically detected, doctors, dietherapists and nutritionists can provide appropriate antidotes that may either minimise or stop the pica entirely.
The treatments for pica in pregnancy may include but not limited to occupational therapy, providing safer items to chew, administering medication that treats any underlying health conditions as well as reducing nutrient deficits with food supplements. This is because pica can be indicative of an unbalanced diet.
Usually, however, pregnancy induced pica goes away after childbirth. In cases where the non-food item (e.g. iced cube) poses no danger, it may not be treated with any medication but through health education.
On the other hand, a craving for a non-food item such as paint chips or inhaling animal droppings and human excreta can pose danger for the pica patient.
Pica may lead to complications such as choking, poisoning, brain damage, ulcers and causing harm to the digestive system.
Besides the treatment regimens aforementioned, the pregnant woman experiencing pica ought to try hard to resist the temptation to eat the non-food items to avoid harmful consequences to both herself and the foetus.
They may overcome the pica temptation by eating or chewing food or other edible things with taste, smell or texture like the non-food items they crave during pregnancy. Also, the right treatment can forestall both the physical and psychological aspects of the pica.
One may further advise that a pregnant woman with pica must urgently seek for care at a health facility if she eats or inhales anything that may contain lead or if she experiences constipation or shortness of breath.
Pica has no single cause. Pica in pregnancy or the weird or unusual craving for non-food items by a pregnant woman can be a disorder in itself or a symptom of medical, psychological or cultural factors.
A pregnant woman who experiences such a weird craving for non-food items must seek appropriate medical interventions to stop it.
Treatment for pica may vary from patient to patient and may be based on the cause of the pica.