Are you dreaming of unusual food combinations during your pregnancy? As most of us know, that’s not so unusual. What’s more uncommon is craving something that’s not even food – maybe you'd rather tuck into a nice handful of dirt, or a crunchy stick of chalk?
The term for these seemingly bizarre, non-food cravings is 'pica'. It comes from the Latin word meaning magpie – a bird that is known to eat anything – and, according to Dr James Freeman, it affects up to one in 12 pregnant women.
“Ice, hair, paint, wood, plaster, chalk, glass, dirt, rocks and sand are all commonly mentioned pica items,” says Dr Freeman, the director and founder of GP2U.com.au.
Amy*, a mum of two, says she experienced pica during both her pregnancies. She admits to craving chalk, but felt too guilty to eat it.
“I bought a box and hid it in the cupboard,” she admits. “I used to look at it and feel it on my fingers. I went so far as to scrape tiny bits off and put them in my mouth. I felt so guilty though, like it would harm the baby.”
Not only did Amy crave chalk, but she also felt the need to step on clay and dirt.
“I walked every day during my pregnancies. If I had to, I'd divert my path to step on balls of dried dirt to hear them crunch. It was seriously satisfying. It was ridiculous but I couldn't stop myself. Thank goodness the urges stopped as soon as I had my babies.”
Lucy* can relate, as she also fantasised about eating chalk during her fourth pregnancy. But she actually followed through.
“I ate chalk in my second trimester,” she said. “I thought about it for a while before I gave in and bought a box from my newsagency. I munched on half a stick of white chalk and spat it out. It felt really nice to chew it and it satisfied my urges.”
“I never did it again but I had thoughts about it quite often,” she says.
Though Lucy didn’t discus it with her doctor, she did confide in her husband and a good friend.
“I told them that I wanted to eat chalk and they just laughed. They thought it was funny,” she says.
Both women say they felt it was the texture that they were craving, not the actual taste of the chalk. To that end, Amy sought out lollies that would give her that “chalky feeling” and crunch.
“I overdosed on those sherbet fizz lollies, those multi-coloured ones that come in rolls. I ate them like there was no tomorrow,” she remembers. “I also munched on antacids for the same reason, just for the chalky texture.”
Although there hasn’t been a lot of research into pica, Dr Freeman says there are two basic schools of thought and “probably both have a grain of truth”.
“One suggested reason is that pica is a specific appetite caused by a mineral deficiency, often iron,” he says. “The other is that it is part of the obsessive compulsive disorder spectrum.”
Dr Peta Stapleton, a clinical health psychologist and assistant professor at Bond University, agrees that both nutrients and/or mental health reasons could be at play.
“In some people there will be a deficiency in nutrients and they will crave what they are missing, but because pica is classified in our diagnostic manual of mental disorders, it flags that there is a massive psychological component to it,” she says.
Dr Stapleton suggests that if you have these cravings, you should tell your doctor so blood tests can be issued.
“Pregnant women with pica cravings need to be tested for deficiencies, and if there isn’t one there, they really need to go the mental health angle,” she says.
For most women, however, there’s little need to worry, as Dr Freeman says most pica behaviour poses no real danger.
“For most of the common pica suspects, there is probably no great danger. Our bodies are remarkably resilient – most of what we eat will come out the other end if it can't be digested. Simple acceptance, unless it's a dangerous substance, is perfectly reasonable,” he says.
But he adds a warning: “The most notable exceptions would be lead paint, glass, magnets and batteries.”
Overall, though, cravings in pregnancy are common and expected by most women. Dr Freeman says if you're not having strange cravings “you're in a minority group” – in fact, he says that statistics show that eight out of 10 women will experience food cravings during pregnancy.
Amy had many pregnancy cravings including watermelon (“I could eat a whole one”) and cups of ice. She also recalls the time she absolutely had to have candy-coated chocolate – but she only wanted three colours.
“They had to be red, yellow and brown; one of each. I wasn't interested in the rest of them,” she says.
“It's fair to say [these cravings] are normal,” Dr Freeman says. “Both food aversions and food cravings are very common in pregnancy, so for most women, they can are fine.
“Let's face it, a craving for a crayfish pizza with chocolate sauce – and that’s a true story – makes for an interesting conversation!”