Munchausen Overview

Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy

In the late 1970s, a British pediatrician named Roy Meadow published an account of two baffling medical cases. In one case, a 6-year-old girl named Kay had been admitted to the hospital 12 times for a urinary tract infection and had been treated with eight different antibiotics -- all unsuccessfully. In the other case, a 14-month-old boy named Charles had been hospitalized many times with drowsiness and vomiting that had no apparent medical cause. Meadow ultimately discovered that the two cases, although they appeared different, had a lot in common. Kay's mother had altered her urine samples to make it appear as if the child were sick. Charles's mother had induced his illness by feeding him large quantities of salt (he eventually died).

Meadow called this condition, in which caregivers knowingly falsify information or inflict harm on their children to garner sympathy, Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Proxy means "through a substitute." The caregiver, not the sick person, is the one faking or causing the illness.

Munchausen syndrome by proxy has also been called Polle syndrome, for Baron von Munchausen's son Polle, who reportedly died under mysterious circumstances around the time of his first birthday. However, some experts say that historical information is incorrect, and the term is no longer used today.

This condition is very rare -- there are only about 1,000 cases a year, according to best estimates. The most common scenario is a mother pretending that her child is sick, or making her child sick because she craves the sympathy she receives as a result. The mother might change test results (for example, by adding a foreign substance to a urine test), inject chemicals into the child, withhold food, suffocate the child or give drugs to cause vomiting. Then the mother will insist that the child go through many tests or procedures to treat the supposed problem. Because the victim is a child, Munchausen syndrome by proxy is considered a form of child abuse.

Someone who has Munchausen syndrome by proxy may be seeking attention because she was abused or lost a parent as a child, or is going through difficult marital problems or another major life stress. Being seen as the caring parent by hospital staff is a way to earn praise that the sufferer might not have garnered otherwise.