Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome

Parents are usually thought of as the people who will protect you from harm, right?

The usual assumption is that the person taking care of you will do just that, take care of you. A good parent tries their best to protect their child from harm, and to many parents the mere thought of their child suffering from an illness worries them, and if they could they would stop such a thing from ever happening. When a baby is born, parents pray for the doctors to say the words “healthy” following the delivery.

People are quick to judge a good parent from a bad parent.  Adverts from the NSPCC and stories of child abuse constantly remind us that there are children out there who are not being taking care of as they should be.

However, one ought not classify a parent as good or bad from face value. This article is about Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome (MBPS), a fairly rare condition that is also a form of child abuse. 

MBPS involves the primary caregiver (most cases involving the mother) deliberately making another person (usually their child) sick by inducing real or apparent symptoms of disease in a child, and convincing others of the illness.

You wouldn’t expect a mother to enjoy their child’s suffering, as “to mother a child” is defined as raising a child with care and affection.

The reason MBPS is a form of child abuse is because the main care taker of a child wishes bad health on their child, and will often go as far as inducing symptoms in order to make the case more believable. The symptoms the child harbours may be disjointed and random, rarely associating with any one disease when all together.

The reason the mother will do such a thing is for the attention that comes with having a sick child. The attention, sympathy and compassion from nurses and doctors are what the mother is seeking. Many also believe that it isn’t just the attention that’s gained from the “illness” of the child that drives this behaviour, but also the satisfaction in being able to deceive individuals that they consider to be more important and powerful than themselves.

A sufferer of MBPS appears to be very attentive to their child, always by their bedside and caring for them. When seeing a woman spending every waking moment with her sick child we automatically see her as a selfless, amazing mother. We would never assume that the reason she is doing so is because she is waiting for opportunities where she can be alone with the child in order to tamper with their health further (by switching medications or injecting the child with urine to cause infections) in an attempt to stop them recovering/make them worse. We never assume the worst, which is probably the most dangerous aspect of MBPS.

Diagnosis can be very difficult, but can be expected to involve:

  • a child who has multiple medical problems that don’t respond to treatment or that follow a persistent and puzzling course
  • physical or laboratory findings that are highly unusual, don’t correspond with the child’s medical history, or are physically or clinically impossible
  • short-term symptoms that tend to stop when the perpetrator isn’t around
  • a parent or caregiver who isn’t reassured by “good news” when test results find no medical problems, but continues to believe that the child is ill
  • a parent or caregiver who appears to be medically knowledgeable or fascinated with medical details or appears to enjoy the hospital environment
  • a parent or caregiver who’s unusually calm in the face of serious difficulties with the child’s health
  • a parent or caregiver who’s highly supportive and encouraging of the doctor, or one who is angry and demands further intervention, more procedures, second opinions, or transfers to more sophisticated facilities

One of the most common causes of MBPS is the primary care taker having been a victim of child abuse when they were younger. They may have come from families in which being sick was a way to get love. The parent’s or caregiver’s own personal needs overcome his or her ability to see the child as a person with feelings and rights, possibly because the parent or caregiver may have grown up being treated like he or she wasn’t a person with rights or feelings.


1 Comment

Filed under Illness

One response to “Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome

  1. Ola

    The book ‘Mummy doesn’t love you’ is really well related to this-it’s a an account by a perfectly healthy guy whose mum made him mentally ill.

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