Winnicott, Donald Woods (1896-1971)

views updated May 17 2018


Donald Woods Winnicott, British psychoanalyst and pediatrician, was born in Plymouth, England, on April 7, 1896, and died in London on January 25, 1971. He was the youngest child and only son of a prosperous provincial English merchant. He attended boarding school, where he read Darwin, and studied at the University of Cambridge, where he read Freud as an undergraduate. He entered the navy in 1917. In the First World War, while still a medical student, he both lost friends and saw action on a destroyer in the navy. Winnicott qualified as a physician in 1920. He gained membership in the Royal College of Physicians in 1922 and became a pediatrician.

From 1923 to 1924 he specialized in pediatrics, married, and began his training analysis with James Strachey. Later he had further analysis with Joan Riviere, and became a Kleinian training analyst. He became an associate member of the British Psycho-Analytical Society in 1934, a child analyst in 1935, a full member in 1936, and a training analyst in 1940. However, in the 1941-1945 controversial discussions in the British society between the adherents of Melanie Klein's views and the adherents of Anna Freud's, Winnicott played little part, finding himself unable to ally fully with either side. At that time, his interest in the effect of environmental factors on development made his ideas unacceptable to Klein. During the German blitz of the Second World War, he became a consultant to the Government Evacuation Scheme for London children. This work stimulated his thinking on the relationship between separation, deprivation, and delinquency, and it also introduced him to Clare Britton, a social worker who later became his second wife and lifelong colleague.

In 1944 Winnicott was elected fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. After the war he became director of the Child Department of the London Clinic of Psycho-Analysis and twice served as president of the British Psycho-Analytical Society (1956-1959 and 1965-1968). He lectured and broadcast on infant and maternal welfare, and inaugurated public lectures on psychoanalysis. He became active internationally, writing copiously for many audiences. While not joining any group in the British society, his thinking influenced members of the Middle Group, later the Independents. Winnicott died in his sleep after surviving several heart attacks.

Winnicott's work was informed by his vast experience in observing mothers and babies as a pediatrician, which allowed him to develop his ideas about the early experience of individuation and about ways of assessing psychic development, such as his spatula game and the Squiggle Game, for communicating with older children. He described the psychophysiological state of a new mother as the "primary maternal preoccupation." In contrast to Melanie Klein and Donald Fairbairn, who saw the infant as having a definable ego from birth, he saw the young infant as being undifferentiated from the mother, cryptically stating "There is no such thing as a baby," meaning that a baby cannot exist alone, that there needs to be a mother or mothering person too. Close maternal attunement and repeated bodily care (the "facilitating environment") allows the baby to begin to become aware simultaneously of its own separateness and that of its mother. Gradual and progressive failure of attunement at a rate at which the baby can increasingly tolerate ("good-enough mothering") strengthens the emerging ego. The baby thus emerges from "absolute dependence" to "relative dependence" and begins to adapt to reality and the painful awareness of the mother's separateness and all that this entails. Such adaptation includes the development of concern and capacity for guilt.

As the difference between the baby's awareness of "me" and "not me" strengthens, many babies need a way of bridging a gap that might be too much for them. Such bridging explains the existence of transitional phenomena. The transitional space in which such phenomena occur provides room for the baby to develop play and an increasing ability to stand being alone. The baby becomes disturbed when lacking a "good-enough" environment, for instance, when a mother is physically or emotionally absent, disturbed, or intrusive, or when the baby has needs that cannot be fulfilled. When the mother cannot respond sensitively to the baby's gestures but substitutes one of her own, her baby cannot be spontaneous, only compliant, even imitativethus developing a "false self."

Winnicott also wrote about the effect of mother's unconscious states, including her unconscious hatred of her baby, and he linked such hatred with the hate that those responsible for delinquents develop toward their charges and the idea of hate in the counter-transference. This developmental framework, with its implication that pathology is linked to environmental failure (either deficient provision for needs or impingement), allowed Winnicott to see that regression in analysis may be a search for the absent experiences, and it led him to emphasize that the analytic setting and the person of the analyst may stimulate the patient's own inborn maturational tendency toward growth and individuation to bring about self-cure.

Strongly influenced by Klein, Winnicott accepted much of her thinking, particularly with regard to the internal world and its objects, and fantasy. He differed from her on the effect of environmental provision and emphasized the importance of early real relationships.

Together with Klein and Fairbairn, one of the founders of the British object-relations school, Winnicott extended his influence to social work, education, developmental psychology, and the probation service, in addition to pediatrics and psychoanalysis. His writing has been translated into almost all European languages; he has been published in the United States, South America, and Japan, and there is strong interest in his work in France and Italy. In Britain, the Independent Group of the British Psycho-Analytical Society has followed his work, and his ideas have interested those working in the field of infant observation in Great Britain and the United States, as well as those adhering to self-psychology theory and practice.

Since his death, the Winnicott Trust, founded by his widow Clare, has continued and completed publication of his work, and funds raised have supported research in early mother-infant relationships at the Winnicott Research Unit at the University of Cambridge. The Squiggle Foundation, an organization devoted to the study of Winnicott's thinking, holds an annual program of lectures and courses in London.

Jennifer Johns

Notions developed: Breakdown; Capacity to be alone; False self; Good-enough mother; Handling; Holding; Integration; Primitive agony; Self (true/false); Squiggle; Transitional object; Transitional object, space; Transitional phenomena.

See also: Abandonment; Addiction; Adolescence; Alcoholism; Annihilation anxieties; Autism; Breastfeeding; Bulimia; Childhood; Children's play; Collective unconscious (analytical psychology); Creativity; Cruelty; Demand; Dependence; Deprivation; Empty Fortress, The ; Envy and Gratitude ; Family; Framework of the psychoanalytic treatment; Great Britain; Illusion; Infans ; Infant development; Infantile omnipotence; Infantile psychosis; Infant observation (direct); Internal object; Intersubjective/intrasubjective; Jokes; Lack of differentiation; Lie; Look/gaze; Maternal; Maternal care; Maturation; Mirror stage; Mutual analysis; Narcissism; Object; Object a ; Omnipotence of thoughts; Partial drive; Splitting; Post-natal/postpartum depression; Primary identification; Primary object; Psychosomatic limit/boundary; Protective shield; Puberty; Quasi-independence/transitional stage; Reality testing; Regression; Reverie; Self-image; Self, the; Suffering; Symbiosis/symbiotic relation; Symbolization, process of; Technique with children, psychoanalytic; Transference hatred.


Phillips, Adam. (1988). Winnicott. London: Fontana Press.

Rodman, F. Robert. (2003). Winnicott: Life and work. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

Winnicott, Donald. (1958). Collected papers: Through paediatrics to psycho-analysis. London: Tavistock Publications.

. (1964). The child, the family, and the outside world. London: Penguin Books.

. (1965). The maturational processes and individual development. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

. (1971). Playing and reality. London: Tavistock Publications.

Winnicott, Donald Woods

views updated Jun 11 2018

Winnicott, Donald Woods (1896–1971) A British paediatrician and psychoanalyst whose work on the mother-baby relationship directed attention to the infant's environment and to ‘good-enough mothering’. Often discussed by modern feminist writers on parenting, his most accessible book is The Child, the Family and the Outside World (1964).