The term transitional object was coined in 1951 by Donald Winnicott as a designation for any material object (typically something soft—a piece of cloth, say, or part of a plush toy) to which an infant attributes a special value and by means of which the child is able to make the necessary shift from the earliest oral relationship with the mother to genuine object-relationships.
Winnicott first spoke of the transitional object on May 30, 1951, in a paper read before the British Psycho-Analytical Society and published in 1953 under the title "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena. A Study of the First Not-Me Possession." This article was recast twenty years later and incorporated into Winnicott's Playing and Reality, a book concerned entirely with transitional phenomena.
In his observation of infants, Winnicott noted that between the ages of four and twelve months children would often become attached to a particular object that they invested with a primordial significance. This object would be manipulated, sucked, or stroked, and often became an indispensable aid for falling asleep. Parents recognized its value, taking it along everywhere and allowing it to get dirty in the realization that washing would introduce a break in continuity in the infant's experience and destroy the object's meaning and special worth. Such objects in fact constituted a defense against depressive anxiety.
As early as 1951 Winnicott warned against the risk of his thinking being reified. What interested him was this "first not-me possession" and the zone it occupied between the sucked thumb and the teddy bear, between early oral erotism and a true object-relationship, between subjectivity and objectivity, between primary creativity and the projection outwards of what had been introjected. In 1971, in his introduction to Playing and Reality, Winnicott wrote that "what I am referring to . . . is not so much the object used as the use of the object" (1971, p. xii).
To explain the origin of the transitional object, Winnicott went back to the first connection with the mother's breast. The mother, he argued, puts the actual breast in a place where the infant is ready to create it and experience an illusory omnipotence in consequence. Later on, the establishment of the reality principle and the inevitable disillusion associated with this will be tolerated by virtue of the transitional object, which allows the child to exercise its feelings of omnipotence in a playful manner. The child arrogates rights over this object, which, though loved passionately, is also expected to resist and triumph over hate. In libidinal terms, the activity involved here is of an oral kind. The object is just as highly cathected with narcissistic libido as with object-libido. It is not recognized as part of either external or inner reality. There is thus an essential paradox at the heart of this conceptual framework: the baby creates the object, yet the object was already there, waiting to be created and cathected. This paradox will never be resolved: in the course of normal development, the object is destined to be gradually decathected, losing its significance as diffuse transitional phenomena spread over the entire intermediate realm between subjective inner reality and common external reality, until the whole sphere of culture is included (art, religion, imaginative life, scientific invention, and so on).
The transitional object and transitional phenomena may be conceived of in three ways: as typifying a phase in the child's normal emotional development; as a defense against separation anxiety; and, lastly, as a neutral sphere in which experience is not challenged—an area of play and illusion.
For Winnicott the transitional object could sometimes be part of abnormal development and become associated with some types of pathology. The child could not make use of such an object unless "the internal object is alive and real and good enough" (1917, p. 11), and this depended on the quality of the maternal care received. Should the external object be bad or absent, the internal object could take on a persecutory character. And should the failure of the external object persist, the internal object would be meaningless and the transitional object would likewise lose all significance and possibly take on a fetishistic character. Winnicott also mentioned drug addiction, lying, and theft as ultimately linked in some cases to a pathology of transitional phenomena.
Several authors have criticized Winnicott's view of the transitional object. Melitta Sperling feels that such objects are pathological manifestations of a specific disturbance of object-relationships. Esther Bick (as cited by Michel Haag) evokes an adhesive clinging that results from a defective introjection of the mother's containing function. And in Françoise Dolto's view, children with "enough words of love and opportunities for play of a motor kind" available have no need of transitional objects, which should therefore be treated from the outset as fetishistic.
See also: Object; Transitional object; Transitional object, space.
Dolto, Françoise. (1984). L 'Image inconsciente du corps. Paris: Seuil.
Haag, Michel. (1984).Á propos des premières applications françaises de l 'observation régulière et prolongée d 'un bébé dans sa famille selon la méthode de Mrs. Esther Bick: Des surprises profitables. Privately published.
Sperling, Melitta. (1963). Fetishism in children. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 32, 374-92.
Winnicott, Donald W. (1953 ). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena. A study of the first not-me possession. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34, 89-97.
——. (1971). Playing and reality. London: Tavistock.
Brody, Sylvia. (1980). Transitional objects: Idealization of a phenomenon. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 49, 561-605.
Giovacchini, Peter L. (1984). The psychoanalytic paradox: The self as a transitional object. Psychoanalytic Review, 71, 81-104.
Greenacre, Phyllis. (1969). The fetish and the transitional object. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 24, 144-164.