Smothered With Something That Looks Like Love, But Isn't: Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy

By the time Cora was 5 years old, she took 6 medicines each day. She saw 11 doctors to monitor her conditions. At night a machine monitored her breathing. Then she was sent to the hospital. At the hospital doctors could not find anything wrong with her.

Cora was healthy but her caretaker had Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

What Is Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy?

Munchausen syndrome by proxy is a rare mental disorder. It is named after Munchausen syndrome. A person with Munchausen syndrome pretends to have symptoms or an illness. The purpose is to gain attention as a patient ( factitious disorder).

Munchausen syndrome by proxy is similar. It involves a parent or caregiver who falsely claims the person they are caring for is sick. The person they care for may be someone disabled. Often, it is a preschool child who is too young to speak up for themselves. The caretaker's behavior is a form of physical and/or emotional abuse. This disorder is dangerous. The child or dependent can be seriously injured or even killed. The caretaker (often the mother) will lie, exaggerate, or even cause symptoms in the person.

A person with this disorder may make up the child's or other's symptoms in several ways. For example, they might:

  • Lie about the symptoms
  • Give medicines or poisons that cause symptoms
  • Starve, suffocate, or cause other harm to the child or dependent
  • Contaminate diagnostic tests
  • Put false information in medical records

The caregiver will deny these behaviors. However, the child gets better when the caregiver is not around.

Looking For Attention

The parent or caretaker uses the other's illness to get attention. Commonly, they get sympathy from friends and family. Others may praise them for their selfless duty to a sick person. To get more praise, the caretaker keeps lying. And the person in their "care" continues to suffer.

Getting Treatment

The first step is keeping the child or dependent person safe. They may need to be removed from the caretaker. The caretaker with the disorder will need psychotherapy. The goal is to eventually return the child to the family. However, this disorder is hard to treat. The child may have to be placed in another person's care for the long-term.

If you suspect a caretaker is causing illness in someone, seek help. Contact inform law enforcement or a child protection agency. You can do this without giving your name, if you need to.

There are many valid reasons that a child or other person may be sick often. Munchausen syndrome by proxy is rare. It needs to be carefully considered before it can be diagnosed.

RESOURCES:

Mental Health America
https://www.mhanational.org

Nemours Kids Health
http://kidshealth.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

About Kids Health
http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca

Mental Health Canada
http://www.mentalhealthcanada.com

REFERENCES:

Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Univeristy of Michigan Health website. Available at:https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/hw180537. Accessed November 8, 2021.

Factitious Disorder. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated November 30, 2015. Accessed April 26, 2016.

Factitious Disorder imposed on another (FDIA). Cleveland Clinic website. Available at: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9834-factitious-disorder-imposed-on-another-fdia. Accessed November 8, 2021.

Munchausen syndrome by proxy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/munchausen-syndrome-by-proxy. Accessed November 8, 2021.

Last reviewed November 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board