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What is pica? Rare condition sees toddler eat walls and books

Jordanna Tait pictured with her daughter Dolly who suffers with pica. (Jordanna Tait/SWNS)
Jordanna Tait has opened up about her daughter's unusual condition, pica, which sees her eating the walls of her bedroom. (Jordanna Tait/SWNS)

A woman has opened up about her daughter's rare condition, pica, which sees her eating the walls of her bedroom.

Jordanna Tait, 25, from Bradford, West Yorkshire, has to constantly monitor her two-year-old daughter Dolly to stop her eating potentially dangerous items around their house.

The toddler is thought to suffer from unusual eating disorder pica, which sparks cravings for inedible objects.

Dolly's condition means her mum has to keep household items like the TV remote out of arm's reach in case she tries to eat them.

She has been forced to quit her job as a sales account manager in order to stay home and monitor her daughter to ensure she doesn’t try to eat anything around the house that could be dangerous.

"I'm just exhausted," she explains. "I'm not Jordanna anymore, I'm just a mum.

"As a mother it's so scary, I have to watch her all the time. I love her, she's amazing, but I have no support. We've had to get rid of everything. I don't know what's going to happen next."

Read more: Eating disorder manifesto and toolkit for schools launched to tackle surge in cases

Dolly is suspected to suffer from unusual eating disorder Pica, which sparks cravings for inedible objects. (Jordanna Tait/SWNS)
Dolly is suspected to suffer from unusual eating disorder pica, which sparks cravings for inedible objects. (Jordanna Tait/SWNS)

Dolly first presented symptoms when she was around 12 months old and Tait noticed chunks had been bitten out of cardboard boxes in her bedroom.

Tait has even found segments of Dolly's reading books and buttons from the remote control in her nappy, which had passed through her system after being consumed.

She then noticed Dolly had started eating her bed frame and other wooden furniture around the house.

So little is known about the condition, the NHS doesn’t outline specific treatment for it.

And when Jordanna first went to her GP, she was asked if she was feeding Dolly enough snacks.

However, the toddler now has to undergo regular blood tests because of the dangers of lead poisoning from the paint of the walls of her house which she eats.

"A paediatrician has said verbally that she is on the autism spectrum, we're just waiting for a formal diagnosis," Tait explains.

"I do get help for her autism, she has portage workers from the council and they're fantastic. But there's no help for the pica.

"It's so petrifying. I really don't know what to do."

Read more: 'My son eats hair, carpet and nappies': The rare condition affecting little William

Tait says she has to constantly monitor Dolly to stop her feeding on potentially dangerous items around the house, pictured a book Dolly has chewed on. (Jordanna Tait/SWNS)
Tait says she has to constantly monitor Dolly to stop her feeding on potentially dangerous items around the house, pictured a book Dolly has chewed on. (Jordanna Tait/SWNS)

According to eating disorder charity, BEAT, pica is a feeding disorder in which someone eats non-food substances that have no nutritional value, but it is often difficult to diagnose.

"I struggle every single day," Tait continues. "Dolly needs constant supervision at all times. We have to keep our eyes on her.

"It's a very hard way to live. My anxiety has gone through the roof ever since we knew about this problem.

"If I'm trying to read her a book, I have to keep her distracted so she doesn't chew it.

"She's going to need all the help and support she can get, especially when she gets to school and they need to keep her safe."

While Dolly has a paediatrician she has spent a year on a waiting list to see a child psychologist.

Watch: New eating disorder manifesto and school toolkit launched

The family was also on a waiting list for a home assessment from an occupational therapist to give tips on how to make their two-bed semi safer, but Tait has now been told that won't happen.

She adds: "Occupational therapy had told me that she's halfway down the waiting list so she would be seen in the new year, but now they're saying there's nothing they can do to help me.

"I feel like I'm being passed from pillar to post."

Tait says the help just isn't there for parents like herself and hopes to one day set up her own organisation to provide assistance.

"I’ve had to fight for everything, it’s one of the reasons I had to quit work so I could help her. I didn’t want her to go through school with no help. I’d like to set up a charity or something one day to fill that gap.

"If I can just help one person then I'll be happy."

Read more: Signs your child has an eating disorder and how to help them

Tait is now campaigning for more awareness about the condition. (Jordanna Tait/SWNS)
Tait is now campaigning for more awareness about the condition. (Jordanna Tait/SWNS)

What is pica?

Pica is a feeding disorder in which someone eats non-food substances that have no nutritional value, such as paper, soap, paint, chalk, or ice.

"For a diagnosis of pica, the behaviour must be present for at least one month, not part of a cultural practice, and developmentally inappropriate," the eating disorder charity BEAT explains.

The condition is generally not diagnosed in children under the age of two, as it is common for babies to “mouth” objects, which can lead to them accidentally eating substances that aren’t meant to be eaten.

Possible signs of pica, according to BEAT include, craving to consume substances that aren’t supposed to be eaten, eating substances that aren’t supposed to be eaten, physical illness as a result of eating harmful substances.

While pica affects people of all genders and ages, it is more likely to first appear among children and can also occur alongside other illnesses, including other eating disorders.

Read more: Eating disorders need to be seen as an emergency, says campaigner Hope Virgo

BEAT says the condition may also be more likely to occur alongside:

  • Pregnancy

  • Iron deficiency anaemia

  • Autism

  • Intellectual developmental disorders

  • Depression

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder and related disorders such as trichotillomania (hair-pulling) and excoriation disorder (skin-picking)

  • Schizophrenia

It isn't fully understood why some people develop pica, but some experts have linked it to the nervous system, and have understood it as a learned behaviour or coping mechanism.

Though those with pica don’t usually avoid regular food, which means they may still be getting all the nutrients they need, BEAT says some non-food items that they consume can be very dangerous, especially if eaten in large quantities.

If you or someone you know has eaten something that isn’t supposed to be eaten, you should seek medical help immediately.

If you’re concerned about yourself or someone else, BEAT recommends visiting your doctor as quickly as possible so that they can refer you for appropriate treatment.

Additional reporting SWNS.