Did you know that the stones you lovingly lick to satisfy your pregnancy craving may be harmful to your baby?
Expectant women crave for non-food items like stones, charcoal, laundry soap, dirt, sand and even cigarette ashes. The worst thing is when the craving strikes, it drives most ladies crazy.
But it is stones, commonly known as udongo, and which are selling like hot cake in supermarkets, that have seen medics raise the alarm.
Also known as pica, a Latin word for magpie – a bird notorious for eating almost anything – these non-food substances eaten by expectant women have been found to contain harmful chemicals.
Recent research by African Council for the Gifted and Talented (ACFGT) with the help of medical researchers in Nairobi suggests that women who eat stones during pregnancy may unwittingly be hurting their children’s health and their ability to learn.
The researchers say the stones can ruin the child’s learning ability and possibly their chance of success in life. The study found a correlation between the non-food eating habits during pregnancy and the cognitive ability of a child.
“The mineral components found in these non-food substances tend to contain chemicals that do affect a child’s mental development capacity, causing retardation of the brain, where the brain tends to slow down in its actualisation processes,” said Professor Humphrey Oborah, ACFGT president.
A spot check by The Standard in the supermarket shelves across the city revealed that stones are a fast-moving commodity.
Not only the pregnant women do indulge in stones but also other women tend to buy. “The stones commonly known as Udongo are a fast moving product, otherwise we would not be stocking them,” says an attendant at one of the city supermarkets.
He further revealed that the sales tend to differ depending on the location of the supermarket with those located in the city centre recording quite a huge number of buyers compared to upmarket stores.
The stones which retail at a price randing between Sh40 and Sh75 are readily available, as they can also be found in the open-air markets such as Gikomba, where the prices are as low as Sh10.
John Ong’ech, head of the Gynaecological Unit at the Kenyatta National Hospital says the habit of women indulging in pica is quite common.
Dr Ong’ech says it is mainly done by women as a way of substituting for minerals such as zinc, iron and calcium, which the body tends to lack at times during pregnancy.
He says pica tends to have adverse effects on a child’s development and can even affect a child’s cognitive ability.
This is because the stones are of no nutritional value to the body. “The baby requires the nutritional components found in the food substances. But lack of the same interferes with both physical and mental growth of the unborn baby,” says Ong’ech.
The result is that the child’s cognitive ability is affected, as the brain tends not to have fully developed.
The Handbook for Clinical Child Psychology seems to support the research in that it points out the complications associated with pica such as paint chips, which may contain lead or other toxic substances and eating them can lead to poisoning, increasing the child’s risk of complications, including learning abilities and brain damage.
This is the most worrying and potentially lethal side effect of pica, with other complications being nutritional deficiencies, constipation or blockages in the digestive tract including the intestines and bowels.
Bacteria or parasites from dirt or other objects can cause serious infections, which can damage the kidneys or liver.
Although medics agree that the effects of pica can be lethal, they also concur that craving during pregnancy is a challenge most women go through and one that cannot be easily wished away.
In order to overcome the craving, many women are put on supplements that contain all the needed minerals that would make one crave for things such as charcoal, stones and the other non-food substances.
Margaret Masara, the assistant nursing officer in charge at KNH Reproductive Health Clinic, said: “Any craving that occurs during pregnancy is a response to a want in the body. This means that the mother lacks certain components such as iron and zinc. We advise all pregnant mothers in our clinics to see a clinician and get supplements, which have no side-effects in the event that they exprience craving.”
She went on to affirm that consumption of pica has adverse effects such as retardation in child growth despite the mother having a normal birth, with the effects only being detectable later.
Oborah noted that Pica intake tends to affect a students’ performance in school either from an early age or later as the child progresses in education. “A child with a strong cognitive ability may later on have poor performance, as the mineral components found in the pica change the child’s learning styles as they get older,” he said.
In order to overcome such learning challenges, curriculum developers have been urged to come up with different instructional methodologies that are more practical.
Oborah said learners with weak cognitive ability are not necessarily bad learners but understand better when other teaching methods are employed.
The research conducted in a time frame of three years revealed that elements such as minerals, accidents and drugs during birth or labour change the chemical conduits of the brain, which connects the brain and the body.
This consequently has an effect on the body’s ability to relate with the signals sent from the brain to other parts of the body and vice versa.
“This may explain why a child might be disciplined, hardworking and obedient but performs poorly in class, devoid of factors such as peer pressure,” said Oborah.