Rare Condition Drives Indiana Girl, 3, to Eat Light Bulb

Pica sufferers have compulsion to eat things that aren't food

Oct. 17, 2011— -- Natalie Hayhurst looks like your average adorable 3-year-old. She plays with makeup, loves Justin Bieber, and loves playing with her big brother on their farm outside Terre Haute, Ind.

But when it comes to food, she's anything but average. Most kids her age are a little picky. Natalie likes everything – literally.

"Well, I first noticed it was a problem … [when] she had actually eaten my vinyl blinds that hang out to cover your sliding door. She took two bites out of them," said Natalie's mother, Colleen Hayhurst.

Natalie suffers from a rare condition called Pica that creates a compulsion to eat things that aren't food.

"She prefers the wood, paper products, cardboard, sticks," said Colleen. "She'll eat rocks, dirt; she's had a bite out of a Diet Coke can; she's eaten the little magnet out of the shower curtain, plastic bottles, toys."

Any parent knows it's hard keeping an eye on a toddler. Try watching one who wants to eat everything in sight.

"You can't take your eye off of her, 'cause if you do she knows it, and she'll try to eat something when she knows you're not looking," said Colleen.

Colleen fears Natalie could die if she eats the wrong thing. In February Natalie was rushed to the emergency room after eating a light bulb.

"She had moved her entertainment center and pulled the light bulb out of the night light while I was doing dishes," Colleen said. "She was in bed; I assumed she was asleep. She had eaten all the glass. I was pretty much hysterical."

Doctors performed surgery to help remove the glass.

When Colleen took Natalie to the pediatrician for a checkup and explained what was going on, the doctor, Dr. Lily Dela Cruz, knew this was something that went beyond typical toddler behavior. She referred them to a developmental behavioral specialist.

Although Pica is more common in young children – more than 10 percent of kids aged 1 to 6 are believed to have some form of the disorder – adults are not immune.

One of them is Adele Edwards. She consumes couches like they're candy, knocking down seven of them in the past 21 years.

She was profiled on the TLC reality show "My Strange Addiction," in which people eat everything from chalk to household cleaners.

One of them, Kesha, craves toilet paper. She's been addicted to eating it since sixth grade.

"A bulky roll with the two-ply? ... I could probably take down half a roll in one day. ... I carry it with me in my purse," she said.

Pica is the Latin word for magpie, a bird that will eat anything. Doctors say these unusual cravings can be triggered by a lack of certain nutrients like iron or zinc. Some with Pica crave the texture of some materials in their mouths.

In the case of Natalie, who has a healthy appetite for regular food, Pica is thought to be psychological. Pica is a symptom of autism, but Natalie has not been tested for the condition. She does suffer from insomnia and ADHD. As she gets older, she understands more what she is doing is wrong, but she can't seem to help herself.

In addition to working with a therapist to curb her cravings, at home Colleen sprays Natalie's tongue with a sour spray that helps satisfy her constant need to put things in her mouth. Natalie also chews on biting sticks. And she has what her family calls her Pica Box full of textured toys that stimulate her senses.

Colleen is reaching out to help other mothers and their children in this predicament.

"There are nights I have cried myself to sleep, because you feel helpless," Colleen said. "My kids are my world … and I care about helping other people who are in the same boat as me."