Donald Winnicott, the great British pediatrician, child psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst

D. W. Winnicott (7 April 1896 – 28 January 1971) began his career as a pediatrician and used his experience with children to develop his innovative ideas. He was analysed by James Strachey, who had translated Freud into English, and became Britain’s first medically-trained child psychoanalyst. Winnicott has made great and lasting contributions to psychoanalytic theory, particularly in the tradition of Object Relations Theory, derived from Melanie Klein's theories.

Winnicott is best known for his ideas on the true self and false self, and the transitional object. He wrote several books, including Playing and Reality, and over 200 papers.

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.

Winnicott conceptualized the psyche of the child as developing in relation to a real, influential parent. For a child to develop a healthy, genuine self, as opposed to a false self, Winnicott felt, the mother must be a "good-enough mother" who relates to the child with "primary maternal preoccupation."

Winnicott's theory is especially innovative regarding his conceptualization of the psychic space between the mother and infant, neither wholly psychological or physical, which he termed the "holding environment" and which allows for the child's transition to being more autonomous. This concept of the "holding environment" led Winnicott to develop his famous theory of the "transitional object." Winnicott felt that a failure of the mother -- the not-good-enough mother -- to provide a "holding environment" would result in a false self disorder, the kind of disorders which he saw in his practice.

“It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”
― D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality

Listen to Winnicott's voice from the BBC programme Archive on Four

A highlight from Radio 4's Archive Hour programme on the psychoanalyst and parenting expert Donald Winnicott, who first broadcast his idea of the 'good-enough mother'; the mother who wasn't perfect and was free, to some extent, to fail. From 1943-1962 he gave some 50 BBC broadcasts and these are two excerpts from his talks, as well as psychotherapist and author Naomi Stadlen's appraisal of Winnicott's ideas.

Winnicott always argued that mothers knew better about the needs of her baby than experts. He suggested that there were,

“very subtle things that the mother knows intuitively and without any intellectual appreciation of what is happening, and which she can only arrive at by being left alone and given full responsibility…” (Winnicott1988, p64).

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.

Selected Books by D.W. Winnicott

Selected Books on D.W. Winnicott

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