Babies are naturally curious and often do unusual activities that include eating their hair. While eating hair can be temporary, babies who do this long-term may experience an underlying condition. Overseeing your child and discussing the symptoms with a doctor can help you determine what causes your child to eat his hair.
Babies who pull, twist, or eat their hair can have several reasons. Twisting can be self-calming behavior. When your baby feels nervous or upset, he can resort to this behavior for comfort. Eating hair can also be a sign of a condition known as Pica. This condition causes children to experience unusual cravings such as eating hair, mud, dirt, ice, paint, sand, or other objects. Children with Pica often experience a nutritional deficiency that leads them to consume non-food products. Examples include iron or zinc deficiencies.
According to several experts, if your baby eats hair from time to time, or once and never again, it is usually a sign that this behavior has been the subject of temporary curiosity, boredom, or anxiety. However, if your child continues to eat hair or other non-food foods for at least a month, this may be a sign of a more severe illness.
While there is no definitive test to diagnose Pica or other causes related to eating hair, your doctor may recommend a blood test to measure your child’s nutrient level. It can also discuss your child’s behavior, including if he gets nervous or angry quickly, and sometimes more than others, you notice that he is eating his hair. Since the hair your child consumes can cause intestinal problems due to its non-digestible nature, your doctor may recommend x-rays to make sure that no masses of hair have formed in his intestines.
Pediatricians often advise, when starting treatment, to remember some key points. Behavior is a form of self-comfort. It has been ‘designed’ to reduce tension. The key, of course, is to avoid touching the hair in the first place. Focusing on eating is a lost cause.
Treatment consists of finding other relief mechanisms to avoid hair-pulling. You can put protective gloves on your baby’s hands to avoid pulling, and it can also help by providing other soothing items such as a blanket, stuffed toy, or another comforting item. If your child has been diagnosed with nutritional deficiencies, increasing iron, zinc, and other nutrients in his daily diet may help. Because this may indicate an underlying disease, such as a brain injury or conduct disorder, your doctor may recommend continuous exams.
What is Trichotillomania?
Trichotillomania, from the Greek trich (hair) and mania (impulse), is a recurring and irresistible habit or behavior aimed at pulling your hair or hair from different areas of the body. Although the most affected part is the head, it can also include other elements such as the person’s eyebrows, eyelashes, armpits, beard, pubis, or any hair area.
What characteristics does it have in children?
Although Trichotillomania is still little studied in children, it is known that a higher incidence has been observed between the ages of two and six. Of course, before the age of two, it is challenging for the child to precisely coordinate his motor movements to pull with enough strength of your hair.
There are children who, with the strands of hair pulled out, make balls to play, others put it in their mouths or break them into smaller pieces and make heaps with them to throw them for fear that the parents will discover and punish them.
The minor may have the head as the most affected part since there is a more significant amount of hair. Still, other areas of the body are damaged by their behavior, such as eyelashes, eyebrows, among others.
This disease usually causes the isolation of the child—moreover, injuries to the scalp or in the areas where the hair is pulled out. Similarly, digestive complications can occur in children who eat their hair, causing nausea and vomiting. It is very usual that the minor also bites his nails.
Why does it occur?
Until now, it is believed that several causes promote this behavior. These can be: genetic, biological, and environmental (possible stress situations).
- Genetics: they are based on the theory that they are hereditary. This means that it can occur in other family members.
- Biological: medical experts believe that Trichotillomania can be caused by a shortage or excess of a particular neurotransmitter (a chemical in the brain). Others argue that a strep infection can trigger symptoms.
- Environmental factors: psychologists defend that it may be due to external causes. For example, the tension or depression that may have triggered the response.
Stressful events can initiate it. It is known that in children it usually has psychosocial stress as a trigger (changes, sudden changes in their environment, different traumatic experiences). As in other pathologies, and from the perspective of behavior modification, we are interested in studying what variables support this behavior alteration.
How is it treated?
The cognitive-behavioral model bases its intervention on habit reversal therapy (Azrin, 1987). It is the form of intervention that today promotes the scientific community as useful for Trichotillomania. The goal is to learn to control the nerve impulse until it disappears.
To treat this psychological disorder, specialists advise a radical change of behavior, you must try to teach the child to control himself. It is not advisable at all to shave his hair to scratch or punish him because we can provoke more considerable anguish in the child and increase the magnitude of the problem.
As in any child’s psychological problem, the participation of the parents in the treatment is significant. First of all, parents need to understand what this disorder consists of and recognize that children generally do not do it voluntarily. During childhood, pharmacological treatments are only recommended in more chronic cases.
Baby eating hair might sound safe if it is a rare event. However, if the situation repeats constantly could be one of the symptoms of a greater problem.