Pica During Pregnancy

Weird food cravings are par for the course—but feasting on nonfood items is not. Learn what pica is and what symptoms to look out for.
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By Nicole Meadow, MPN, RD, Nutritionist
Updated May 30, 2017
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Strange food cravings are a kind of pregnancy hallmark—think: an ice cream sunday with a pickle chaser. But when your cravings leave you with a hankering for nonfood items, there could be something else going on.

What Is Pica?

Pica is a condition in which pregnant women compulsively eat nonfood items (over the course of at least a month) that don’t have any nutritional value, like dirt and clay. The medical term comes from the Latin name for magpie (Pica pica), a bird that’s said to eat almost anything.

Common Pica Cravings

If you’re suddenly feeling the urge to eat the sand at the beach or the soil in your backyard, you may have pica. According to the American Pregnancy Association, some common pica cravings include:

• Dirt
• Clay
• Ice • Laundry starch • Cornstarch • Sand
• Plaster
• Charcoal
• Soap
• Burnt matches
• Baking soda • Mothballs
• Coffee grounds
• Cigarette ashes

What Causes Pica

We don’t know for certain what causes pica, but according to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, it could be connected to iron deficiency and poor nutrition. There aren’t any specific tests for pica, but since there may be a connection to vitamin deficiency, your doctor may test your blood for low levels of iron and zinc.

Luckily, pica isn’t super-common among pregnant women. According to the American Pregnancy Association, while pica can occur during pregnancy, it’s more often seen in kids (approximately 25 to 30 percent of children).

Can Pica Affect Your Pregnancy?

Depending on what you actually ingest, complications from pica can range from constipation and cramping to intestinal obstruction, infection and poisoning, since certain nonfood items may contain toxic ingredients that can potentially harm both you and baby. Eating nonfoods could get in the way of you eating healthy, nutritious foods, leading to malnutrition. Plus, if you do have a vitamin deficiency, it could mean baby’s not getting something he needs.

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How To Treat Pica

If you’re experiencing unusual cravings for nonfoods, contact your doctor. He or she may test you for nutrition deficiency and give you vitamin supplements, and work with you to come up with a treatment plan. There’s no specific way to prevent pica, but getting the right amount of nutrients may help.

What Other Women Do When They Have Pica

“The last two weeks I’ve been craving ice, and I’ve been losing the battle to NOT eat snow. Doctor put me on iron pills yesterday.”

“I had it with my first pregnancy—I craved dirt. Don’t worry—I knew not to really eat it, but I loved to smell it. This time around, it’s sand.”

“I don’t have it, but a girlfriend of mine craved laundry detergent and dirt when she was pregnant.”

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