The psychology of eating crayons

January 24, 2018 Providence Health Team

Why your kid is obsessed with eating non-edible snacks

  • Crayons are mostly harmless
  • Large quantities may be linked to pica
  • Chalk it up to curiosity

“Why does my child eat crayons?” is a fairly common question, believe it or not. If you’re a frequenter of mommy blogs or tend to scour online forums for parenting tips, chances are that you’ll stumble upon a frantic parent or two who have no clue why their kid is tasting the rainbow. Most parents experiencing this phenomenon will chalk it up to an experimental phase – equating eating crayons with eating dirt or playground sand. But what if it’s something more? Here are some other reasons for your child’s inclination toward crayons:

  • Curiosity – “A lot of drawing tools are formulated for kids to enjoy. For instance, most children’s crayon or colored pencil packs are scented to mimic certain fruits or foods. Some children are curious to see if their orange crayon really does taste like an orange while others take a bite just to see what happens,” says Kirsten Crowley, MD, a pediatrician and medical director at Providence Medical Group, Scholls Pediatrics.
  • Teething – Depending on how young your child is, they might just want to bite down on something to relieve the uncomfortable sensation in their gums. Be observant and see if they aren’t just reaching for the crayon. Kids often chew or eat colored pencils, erasers and markers.
  • Oral fixation – “Kids who have an oral fixation have a constant desire to put objects in their mouths. It becomes an obsession, and the objects can range from toys, paper, clothing and anything else they can get their hands on. Kids with oral fixation also tend to be less socially mature than other kids, so if your child has a problem with separation, this may be the cause of their fascination with eating crayons,” explains Dr. Crowley.
  • Iron deficiency – Dr. Crowley goes on to say, “When kids have iron-deficiency anemia, they don’t have enough iron to produce hemoglobin. This causes some strange eating habits – some cases have been linked to children and adults consuming non-edible foods like ice, clay and dirt. It is also a condition that is linked to pica.”

Pica comes from the Latin word for magpie, known for its appetite to eat anything and everything. According to Dr. Crowley, “It’s a compulsion that focuses on a single non-food item, but just because your child ingests crayons once doesn’t mean they have the disorder. Pica is usually extended to those who are fixated on a single item for longer than a month and generally occurs in children that haven’t previously been diagnosed with autism or any developmental disorders. Pica behaviors include eating non-food items, like crayons, in larger quantities because of the texture, smell or taste.”

“Eating lots of cornstarch, paint chips or twigs can lead to health problems such as obesity, poisoning or teeth damage, respectively. The good news is that crayons are usually non-toxic, which means that the only outcome your child will experience is most likely rainbow-colored bowel movements. However, eating excessive quantities of crayons means ingesting large amounts of wax that can eventually lead to intestinal obstruction, so be sure to consult your physician if you think it might be pica-related.”

Dr. Crowley continues, “In most cases, eating crayons is harmless. Parents can ensure that their child is minimizing their intake by keeping crayons out of reach and allowing coloring under supervision. They may also want to purchase crayons or colored pencils that are non-toxic and unscented. If you are noticing that your child has an oral fixation with crayons or is “addicted” to eating them, contact a medical provider to discuss possible causes and treatments.”

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