Why Do Babies Try to Eat Their Hair?

Babies are naturally curious and often perform unusual activities, including eating their hair. While eating hair could be temporary, babies who do this long-term could experience an underlying condition. Observing your child carefully and discussing symptoms with a physician can help you determine the cause of your child's hair eating.

A mother holds her toddler on her lap as she speaks to a doctor. (Image: gpointstudio/iStock/Getty Images)

Significance

Babies pulling, twirling or eating their hair can be significant in several ways. Twirling can be a self-soothing behavior that develops into pulling, according to Dr. Kevin Kennedy, a child psychologist writing on MedHelp.org. When your baby feels nervous or upset, she may turn to this behavior for comfort. Eating the hair also can signal a condition known as pica. This condition causes children to experience unusual cravings, such as eating hair, clay, dirt, ice, paint, sand or other objects, according to MedlinePlus. Children with pica often experience a nutritional deficiency that leads them to consume non-food items. Examples include iron or zinc deficiencies.

Time Frame

If your baby eats hair occasionally, or once and never again, this typically is a sign that the behavior was the subject of curiosity, boredom or temporary anxiety. However, if your child continues to eat hair or other non-food for at least a month, this can signal a more serious condition, according to MedlinePlus.

Diagnosis

While there is no definitive test to diagnose pica or other causes related to eating hair, your physician may recommend a blood test to measure your child's nutrient levels. Your doctor will also discuss your child's behavior, including whether he becomes nervous or upset easily and whether there are some times more than others that you observe him eating hair. Because consuming hair can cause bowel problems due to its indigestible nature, your physician may recommend imaging tests to make sure hair masses have not formed in your child's intestines, according to Kids Health.

Expert Insight

When initiating treatment, remember a few key points, Dr. Kennedy advises. "The behavior is a form of self-soothing. It is 'designed' to reduce tension," Dr. Kennedy said. "The key, of course, is to prevent the pulling in the first place. To focus on the eating is a losing proposition."

Treatment

As Dr. Kennedy recommended, treatment involves finding other soothing mechanisms to prevent hair pulling. You can place protective mittens on your baby's hands to prevent pulling. Providing other soothing items, such as a blanket, stuffed animal or other comforting object, also can help. If your child has been diagnosed with nutritional deficiencies, increasing iron, zinc or other nutrients in her daily diet can help. Because pica can indicate an underlying condition, such as a brain injury or behavioral disturbance, your physician may recommend continued checkups, according to Kids Health.

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