So many parents have had this Hallmark moment: you're sitting in the backyard, watching your little one adorably run a car through a makeshift highway in the dirt, when the next thing you know the child is scooping up a handful of mud and eating it like a bowl of nachos. Yep. Your toddler just ate dirt. Now what? I mean it's dirt! So, obviously this is bad, right? Not necessarily.
Dr. Jennifer Trachtenberg is a pediatrician and parenting expert, and serves as a SpokesDoctor for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Her advice if you have a little dirt eater? Stay calm. "It's normal toddler behavior to put everything in their mouth, even sometimes dirt. If it's a rare event out at the playground, don't panic — you're definitely not alone as a mom." Dr. Jen (as she's called) says that yes, the "continuous eating of dirt, sand, or soil contaminated with animal poop could lead to infections or parasites," so you shouldn't encourage your kid to regularly chow down on the backyard. But she also points out that, as dirt doesn't exactly taste delish, most kids immediately spit it back out and quickly learn that the ground doesn't make for the tastiest snack.
Dr. Alison Mitzner is a board-certified pediatrician, family wellness and fitness expert, and she agrees that if a child is generally healthy, there really isn't any harm in a bit of dirt-eating. "In an otherwise healthy child with a healthy immune system, there is often no harm to eating the dirt. Unless the dirt is saturated in animal feces or chemicals — which likely would not be the case where they are playing — your child should be fine," she tells Romper. (And obviously, should your child seem ill after they've eaten something — dirt or otherwise — you should always consult a doctor.)
Dr. Jen says if you notice your child seems to continually want to eat dirt and/or other non-food items like paint, paper, or hair, then it is a cause for concern. The child could have what is called Pica, "a behavior that could be due to iron deficiency, malnutrition, behavior, or emotional disorders." If this is the case, your child should absolutely be evaluated by your pediatrician.
It's also worth noting that a little bit of dirt-eating can actually be beneficial to a child. There's even a book and documentary proclaiming as much. In Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World, B. Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta (both professors of microbiology) lay out the case that children need to be exposed to certain microbes in order to develop strong, healthy immune systems. They say our culture's over-sanitized desire for constant cleanliness is actually harmful, and if we don't expose children to dirt, it puts them at a greater risk for things like asthma, obesity, and diabetes.
So, is it gross when your toddler turns to you and smiles with mud-caked teeth like she's just been munching a chocolate mousse? Yep. But is it always something to freak out over? Nope.
Dr. Alison Mitzner, board certified pediatrician, family wellness and fitness expert