Pica and its strange cravings

Apr 5, 2013 at 1:00 p.m. ET

You normally wouldn’t want to eat dirt, chalk, ice or clay, but since you’ve become pregnant it’s all you can think about. Learn more about pica, what it means and what you should do about it.

Pregnant woman thinking about cravings

Are you pregnant? Do you find yourself craving unusual substances, such as laundry detergent or soap? What about a massive craving of ice, dirt or sand? If so, you may have the uncommon condition known as pica, but if you are experiencing it, you’re definitely not alone.

What is pica?

Pica is the word that describes the condition where a person craves non-food items. It’s more common in children than it is in adults, but it does crop up sometimes in pregnant women.

“The most common cravings for non-food items are for dirt, clay, laundry starch, chalk, ice, paint chips and even cigarette ashes,” explained Glade B. Curtis, M.D., the author of Your Pregnancy Week by Week. “I have not seen it very often in my patients, but have seen patients craving ice and paper most frequently."

Ice, ice baby

Rachael, pregnant with her third child, has craved ice with each of her pregnancies.

“I fill up glasses of ice, and eat them, one after the other, every day,” she told us. “I’m not really concerned about it because it is just ice. Technically it’s not a food item, but it's not like paint chips — ice isn’t going to hurt me or the baby."

Melissa, mom of three, had a similar craving. “I was so obsessed with eating ice that I used to keep a spoon in the freezer so I could scrape the sides and eat the ice shavings,” she shared.

Why does it happen?

The ultimate cause is unknown, but many think that it could be due to vitamin or mineral deficiencies in the mother. Dr. Curtis agreed. “Some think it is due to an iron deficiency, others believe it is an attempt to get minerals or vitamins not included in their diet,” he said. “Others have speculated it is due to an underlying physical or even a mental illness.”

Rachael has discussed her ice habit with her physicians and they told her it could be due to her iron deficiency, but once that was treated, the urge to eat ice did not go away. “Really, the only downside is that I want to eat it all day, and crunching on ice in public doesn’t really go down well, and my husband cringes at the sound!” she shared.


Treatment focuses on determining if there are any underlying vitamin or mineral deficiencies and treating them. Consult with your physician if you find yourself drawn to any non-food item — even one as innocent as ice.

Kelly, mom of three boys, found the scent of raw meat very appealing during her pregnancy. While it is a food item, in uncooked form it could be dangerous, so she had to really teach herself to avoid it. “I loved the smell of it,” she remembered. “I was often tempted to eat it and it was literally mind over matter, telling myself it was gross. I never ate it, but it was a very odd experience. My midwife said I probably needed to eat more protein.”

“The best plan is to discuss this with your health care provider,” Dr. Curtis told us. “Pay close attention to vitamin and mineral intake, and make sure you are taking a prenatal vitamin. When cravings occur, substitute things like sugarless gum or vegetable sticks.”

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Too busy for childbirth classes? Think again
The royal pain of hyperemesis gravidarum