My Kid Eats Paper, And It's Kinda Weird

My Kid Eats Paper, And It’s Kinda Weird

Rita Templeton

Put a cupcake in front of my kids, and they’ll react differently. One hates frosting, so he’ll scrape it off. One will eat only the frosting, leaving the naked cake behind. And one will eat the entire thing — and by “the entire thing,” I mean the entire thing. Cupcake paper and all.

And when he eats a sucker, that includes the stick.

The good thing about this? He never leaves much trash behind. The bad thing? It’s…just kind of weird. I mean, I’m not one to judge anybody’s snack choices, but even the strangest food choices are, well, food. Meanwhile my son is over here noshing on a pizza coupon like it’s the actual pizza.

He was about 2 1/2 the first time I noticed it. I walked into the bathroom, and there he was taking a chunk out of a full roll of toilet paper. I was equally impressed with his bite strength (really, who can bite a toilet paper roll like it’s an apple?!) and horrified that my toddler was eating toilet paper instead of the endless array of toddler-appropriate snacks I provided him. I pried open his mouth, but it was too late — the TP was well on its way into his digestive system by that point. Wiping from the inside, you could say. I scolded him, of course, and told him we don’t eat paper and thought that was the end of it, that little kids just put stuff in their mouths, that it was normal behavior that wouldn’t be an issue.

But not long after that, I noticed him eating a Kleenex. Then, sitting on the couch watching TV, mindlessly eating bits of a baby wipe. I began to get concerned and placed a worried call to his pediatrician who suggested I bring him in for a full workup of blood tests to check for any nutritional deficiencies.

So that’s what happened. My baby was poked and prodded, his blood screened for any abnormalities. Surprisingly, though, everything came back fine; he was healthy, his vitamin and mineral levels completely normal. The pediatrician said it was a condition called pica — a compulsion to eat non-food items, most commonly things like paper, chalk, soap, dirt, or ashes.

The doctor said that it’s found a lot in children with malnutrition, but since my son wasn’t malnourished, that it was probably behavioral and he’d grow out of it by the time he was 4. My son was probably just seeking attention, he told me. However, that’s the one part of the diagnosis I disagree with. It was never attention-seeking behavior. He’s never once been like, “Hey, look at me! I’m eating paper!” It seems to be a very natural, almost absentminded habit to him, done in the same way some people might twirl their hair or nibble their nails. He does it whether he’s in front of people or in a room by himself.

From soft paper products like napkins and baby wipes, he graduated to eating regular paper — the pages of books, for example, those ruffly edges of notebook paper, junk mail. As long as it wasn’t interfering with his regular diet (it wasn’t) and he wasn’t at risk of choking (he was eating them little bits at a time), I pretty much just ignored it, clinging to his doctor’s belief that it was something he’d outgrow. It became so normal to see him eating paper that after a while, I barely even noticed. Once when we were out to dinner, my son had ordered chicken strips, which came in a basket lined with blue-and-white checkered paper. He ate his chicken strips and fries, then the basket lining, and had started on his straw wrapper when a lady came up to our table.

“Excuse me,” she said, pointing, brow furrowed with concern, “but your son is eating that straw paper.”

“Oh, thanks!” I said, as though she had saved him from something terrible, and removed the paper from his mouth. But after she walked away, I gave it back to him. If she only knew, I chuckled to myself. It’s like living with a goat.

He just turned 9, and the other night at dinner I asked him to please stop eating his napkin — a full five years after his pediatrician predicted he’d quit. Now that he’s old enough to be articulate, I’ve asked him why he does it, and the only explanation he can offer is that he enjoys the texture (WTF!). But while he hasn’t outgrown his paper-eating completely, he doesn’t do it nearly as often as he used to, and I like to think it’s at least dwindling.

Because even though “my brother ate my homework” could be a perfectly legit excuse around here, no teacher would ever believe it.