Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy

A type of child abuse

Young Victims of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Credit: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

Munchausen syndrome by proxy, now referred to as factitious disorder, can take the form of child abuse in which a mother makes up illnesses for her child. The mother uses the child's fake illnesses to gain attention.

In 95 percent of cases the mother is the one abusing the child this way; in other cases, the father, grandparent, or even babysitter may be the abuser. Some mothers go beyond making up symptoms to actually causing symptoms.

In time, the child can come to believe that he or she really is sick. Some abused children fear contradicting their mothers, or feel that no one will believe the truth if they tell it.

Syndrome difficult to identify

Some of the reasons why Munchausen syndrome by proxy is difficult for health care providers to identify are:

  • the child has a combination of symptoms that does not conform to any known disease or disorder
  • health care providers are not familiar with Munchausen syndrome and don't consider it to be a possible diagnosis
  • the physician tends to believe the very persuasive and compelling medical history the mother gives; she knows medical terminology and may have even worked in health care herself
  • the child has often been taken to different health care providers over time, at different hospitals, and there is no communication among these providers

Potentially deadly results

Some mothers may severely hurt their children in order to cause symptoms.

A mother may poison her child with medications, chemicals, or salt, give laxatives to cause diarrhea, or syrup of ipecac to cause vomiting. Some may go as far as suffocating the child for brief periods of time to cause respiratory and nervous system problems.

Sometimes the abused child dies as a result of the medical procedures, such as surgery, done to treat the child's strange symptoms.

What are the complications of Munchausen syndrome by proxy?

This disorder can lead to serious short- and long-term complications, including continued abuse, multiple hospitalizations, and the death of the victim. (Research suggests that the death rate for victims of Munchausen syndrome by proxy is about 10 percent.) In some cases, a child victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy learns to associate getting attention to being sick and develops Munchausen syndrome imposed on self. Considered a form of child abuse, Munchausen syndrome by proxy is a criminal offense.

Can Munchausen syndrome by proxy be prevented?

There is no known way to prevent this disorder. However, it might be helpful to begin treatment in people as soon as they begin to have symptoms. Removing the child or other victim from the care of the person with Munchausen syndrome by proxy can prevent further harm to the victim.

Treating Munchausen syndrome by proxy

In Munchausen syndrome by proxy, the treatment needed is not of the "ill" child but of his or her mother.

Parents who abuse a child this way have a psychological problem that requires professional intervention.

What is the prognosis (outlook) for people with Munchausen syndrome by proxy?

Generally, Munchausen syndrome by proxy is a very difficult disorder to treat and often requires years of therapy and support. Social services, law enforcement, children's protective services, and physicians must function as a team to stop the behavior.

References:

Abdulhamid, I. & Siegal, P. (2002). Munchausen syndrome by proxy. eMedicine.com.

Cleveland Clinic. Munchausen syndrome by proxy. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases_conditions/hic_An_Overview_of_Factitious_Disorders/hic_Munchausen_Syndrome/hic_Munchausen_Syndrome_by_Proxy 


Donavon Mason, D. (2001). Munchausen syndrome by proxy. eMedicine.com.

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