When 5-year-old Shavawn Floyd lost her appetite and complained of severe abdominal pain, doctors told her mother she probably had a virus and prescribed antibiotics.

But a month later, her symptoms had not subsided, and last week, the child was taken to the hospital emergency room in agonizing pain. Doctors conducted more tests, including X-rays, and discovered a hairball the size of a pear lodged in the girl's stomach.

Apparently, Shavawn, who had a habit of putting her hair in her mouth, had been slowly ingesting the long, wavy strands of synthetic material that hairdressers and her mother had been braiding into her black tresses for several years. The hairball, doctors said, had been growing in her stomach for about a year.

The fashionable practice of braiding artificial and human hair into black women's coiffures for added length and fullness has become increasingly popular for children, according to local hairdressers.

Shavawn's mother, Eva Floyd, a 27-year-old postal worker from Southeast, had used synthetic extensions to create the long, thin braids with the ends brushed out, similar to styles worn by stars Lisa Bonet and Whitney Houston.

Eva Floyd said she and other mothers like the style because it requires no curling iron or other treatment to straighten their children's hair. The plaits look neat, generally last four to six weeks, require minimum care and can be kept in during washings. She said she has used extensions in Shavawn's hair since the child was 3.

She had no idea her daughter was eating her hair, she said.

Shavawn "just was in so much pain," Floyd said. "She wouldn't eat. Her stomach was full."

At first, doctors told the mother they would have to operate. But the day before surgery, Shavawn woke up feeling much better. Doctors said the hairball apparently had dislodged and passed through her digestive system.

"Our advice was very simple: changing the child's hairstyle {and} not putting the extensions in," said Benny Kerzner, a doctor at Children's Hospital.

Floyd said she still will let Shavawn wear extensions, but now the plaits are braided all the way to the ends and singed at the tips to keep them from unraveling.

"It's a real convenience, especially for little girls who don't like to sit long," Floyd said. "It's a cute style. A lot of little girls are wearing it."

The style takes four to 10 hours to create. Extensions cost from $3 for some synthetic brands to $85 for a quarter-pound of human hair. The cost in salons ranges from $25 for children to $400 for elaborate adult styles, hairdressers said.

Doctors at Children's Hospital said hairballs resulting from children ingesting hair woven into their braids are rare. This year, doctors surgically removed a hairball the size of a grapefruit from the stomach of an emotionally disturbed 7-year-old. In that case, however, the child had ingested her natural hair.

The style of wearing braids lengthened with extensions originated in ancient Africa. Cleopatra used animal fibers to lengthen her plaits, said Pamela Ferrell, owner of Corn Rows & Company on 14th Street NW. In 12 years in business, Ferrell said she has never heard of a case like Shavawn's.

"It sounds really bizarre," she said.

"She's fine," Shavawn's mother said this week. "I just thank God that they found it."