© The Winnicott Trust
© The Winnicott Trust

A pre-eminent figure in British psychoanalysis, Donald Winnicott  is recognised internationally for his contributions to the understanding of psychological development, from infancy to maturity. He was both paediatrician and psychoanalyst and used the experience gained from each discipline to inform his practice in the other. As paediatrician he had the opportunity to study normal psychological growth and development from the earliest moments of life onward in many thousands of mother/baby couples. Together with the understanding of psychopathology that he gained from his psychoanalytic practice he developed a unique capacity to understand the difficulties of both adults and children when they arose, travelling with them and guiding them towards resolution. A natural communicator, he wrote for many audiences, professional and lay, and also became well-known for his many BBC broadcasts on matters to do with children’s care and welfare: his term ‘good-enough mother’ continues to find a place there ( ). He is probably best-known for his work on the importance of play, and “Transitional Objects” – his term for the special blanket or soft toy inseparable from the infant or toddler, and also for his use of the “Squiggle Game” to catch the attention and engage with his child patients.

Born in 1896, Winnicott grew up as the youngest child and only son of a mercantile family with a strong Methodist tradition in Plymouth, Devon. His father was apparently strict and distant, his mother somewhat depressed, otherwise his childhood could be said to be typical of the time for a comfortably off family – schooling near to home being followed by boarding school in Cambridge from the age of 14. He then attended the University in Cambridge to study medicine, disappointing his father who had wished him to go into the family business. His studies were interrupted by the First World War (1914-1918) during which he became a Surgeon-Probationer in the Royal Navy and saw action. He later recalled with sorrow the number of contemporaries and friends that were lost in that conflict.

Winnicott completed his medical studies at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1920; having begun to read Freud’s work while still a student and recognising the importance of the unconscious mind and its workings, and the phenomenon of dreams. By 1923 he was working with sick children, in the new specialty of paediatrics. In that year, he also married for the first time, and soon after began his personal psychoanalysis with James Strachey. In 1927 he began to train in psychoanalysis himself, and later worked with Melanie Klein, whose influence on his work came second only to that of Freud: but Klein found that Winnicott’s development of her ideas diverged too far from hers to be satisfactory to her, and she became unable to support him as a member of her followers.

During the Second World War, in addition to his paediatric clinics and his psychoanalytic practice he began his series of broadcasts to the public about baby and child care, and also became an advisor on disturbed evacuated children; his experience with the latter group allowed him an insight into the development of delinquency. It was during the attachment to a hostel for disturbed children that he met and worked with Clare Britton, who became his second wife and who stimulated much of his writing and teaching. Clare was a leading social worker, latterly advising government on child welfare; she persuaded Winnicott regularly to engage in teaching child development and welfare to her students at the London School of Economics.


Donal Winnicott’s great contribution was to alter the field of study of early life, so that rather than concentrating on the internal world of either the mother or the baby, the field became the mother/baby unit. His statement “there is no such thing as a baby” was based on the observation that a baby is never seen alone. A caretaker, usually mother, is inevitably present, and Winnicott showed that study of the earliest stages of life must always include this situation. The infant’s mind does not develop in isolation, but emerges from the earliest relationship, and will always bear traces of it. It follows that the actual person of the mother, her body, thoughts and feelings and behaviour, must be part of the relationship and will affect the developing infant. Winnicott understood the infant’s need for a mother who, while sensitively responsive to her baby’s needs can also gradually allow space and time for innate potential to evolve. He recognised that being devoted to the baby both in mind and body placed new mothers in a particularly vulnerable state, , and that this is necessary for adaptation to the new-born baby’s needs. Over time, as the baby’s physical and emotional needs change with development, the devotion of the “good-enough mother” also changes. She becomes a person who, while inevitably failing from time-to-time, achieves the essential capacity to facilitate her baby’s healthy development. The field ‘mother/baby’ dissolves, and can be replaced by the study of individuals, who, while still in relationship, are becoming separate.


By nature playful himself, when observing young infants and their mothers in his clinic, Winnicott studied both the infant’s psychological development, the relationship with the mother and also the relationship with strangers by means of placing a shiny tongue depressor near the infant – the “Spatula Game” – and observing the response to this new situation. He would note the infant’s own level of excitement, curiosity and anxiety, and need or otherwise for mother’s reassuring presence, as well as the mother’s level of involvement and sensitivity to her baby’s states of arousal. From this he was able to make an assessment of the characteristics of each and the relationship between them.

He used the “Squiggle Game” to reach out to his older child patients, inviting them to engage in this drawing game in which he and the child alternately initiate and complete a random line to create a picture. Observing the child’s reaction to the invitation and engagement in the game, he understood that both the end results and the creative process itself each contained communications from the child’s inner world. Using understanding gained from psychoanalysis he was thus able to get in touch with the inner, repressed and unconscious struggles of the troubled children he saw. This enabled them to feel safe and understood so that a therapeutic relationship could evolve.


During the developmental phase in which babies begin to aware of themselves and others as separate entities, the majority of babies and toddlers develop a special relationship with something other in their lives – perhaps the satin ribbon on their blanket or a teddy bear. This possession acquires great importance to them especially at times of change (meeting new people, going to bed) or anxiety. Examining the importance of this phenomenon in great detail, Winnicott saw the relationship with this “Transitional Object” as acting as a bridge for the infant who is emerging from a state in which she cannot yet distinguish herself from other “not-me” elements, towards the state in which she does distinguish the differences and begins to be able to relate to them. This lays the foundation for the emergence of symbolisation. This is an important element in the journey from absolute dependence to relative dependence. Winnicott’s most popular book, Playing and Reality addresses and expands these ideas.


One of Winnicott’s most frequently quoted ideas was based on his observation that there could be situations of a particular quality in which mothers misinterpret a baby’s signals, and in their misinterpretation respond to them inappropriately: the particular issue of note was when the responses unwittingly related more to the unconscious needs of the mother rather than the authentic needs of their baby. He noticed that if this happened frequently, the infant might respond by complying, responding to mother in a way that seemed to agree that she was correct in her assessment. The potential for authenticity and spontaneity (“The True Self”) does not develop, indeed is hidden, and the compliance becomes the basis for the development of a “False Self” – a permanent way of being that, in various degrees, inhibits that authenticity and spontaneity. He first wrote about this topic in detail in 1960, and these thoughts have been addressed by many writers since.


Winnicott wrote and published for most of his professional life, addressing many different audiences, from psychoanalysts and other mental health workers to parents, teachers, social workers, nurses and midwives, probation officers and even to schoolchildren. In addition, many of Winnicott’s BBC broadcasts to the general public were transcribed and later published, so that there have been over 20 books of his papers made available. The publication of his re-edited Collected Works, which extends to 12 volumes, will take place in late 2016: The Winnicott Trust held a conference in London in 2015 to celebrate this achievement and a report of this can be found in the resources section.