My Kid Just Ate Dirt

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Let's face it: Half the parenting job is managing the dumb things our kids do (the other half, thankfully, is accepting their hugs and kisses for doing so). But parents need to pace themselves because we can't afford to freak out every time we face a kid-engineered act of dumbness.

So, to that end, Columbus Parent unveils its latest feature - What's the Worst That Could Happen? - where we pose this question to the experts who can allay our fears and keep us focused on getting these kids happily and healthily to the doorstep of adulthood (when they can then start taking care of us).

This month we consider the challenge of a child who just ate dirt.

FEAR: My kid is going to develop some horrible disease from digesting dirt. Or maybe something's psychologically wrong with my kid.

FACT: "We know all kids are going to sample things with their mouths," said Dr. Kathleen Lemanek, a pediatric psychologist with Nationwide Children's Hospital. "It's part of learning and having curiosity about their surroundings."

This "oral" behavior is quite normal for children ages 2 and younger, Lemanek said, and more often than not, they will spit out most of any non-food item if it doesn't taste good.

There are also cultures where eating certain non-foods like clay or baby powder is quite normal (they'll be used like stomach-soothing lozenges during pregnancy or illness, Lemanek said).

But for something like dirt or sand, if the sampling continues past age 3 or becomes secretive, there may be physical or psychological reasons that you should consult the family doctor about.

A craving for non-foods like dirt may signal a type of iron-deficiency anemia, and adding iron to the diet should eliminate the craving: This condition is known as pica (pronounced "PEYE-kuh"). But you should do that only with a doctor's guidance.

If there aren't nutritional deficiencies, then there could be a sensory-stimulation need or possibly an underlying obsessive-compulsive disorder. In those cases, there probably will be other oral behaviors like nail biting or hair eating, or there may be a family history of such behaviors.

To figure out if your child is ingesting other things he or she shouldn't, Lemanek advised parents to "look in the toilet" and, if you see something that shouldn't be in the stools, talk to your family doctor.

As for contracting diseases from dirt, your child probably won't swallow enough dirt to get ill, but if they do, it would happen quickly and you would get them to a doctor. However, for most kids who have sampled mud pies, just administer plenty of fluids to help wash it through the system.