The mother-child relationship is the first one established by the human being and one of the most, if not the most, important for the development of the future man or woman. This bond, which begins to be forged during pregnancy, will mark the baby’s pattern of interaction with the world and his or her understanding of reality, as well as the social and emotional bond with others.

This type of relationship has been studied from different perspectives, such as psychoanalysis, being Donald Woods Winnicott one of the authors who focused his work on it. In this article we will make a brief review of the biography of this important author.

Winnicott’s Biography: His Early Years

Donald Woods Winnicott was born in Plymouth during the year 1896 . The son of Frederick Winnicott, a merchant and politician who would come to be considered a servant and who would transmit to his son the importance of not being tied to dogmas, and of Elizabeth Martha Winnicott, he was the youngest and only male of three brothers.

Winnicott began studying at the age of 14 at Leys College in Cambridge, and later enrolled at Cambridge University in medical school. During World War I he was recruited and served as a surgeon. After his service he was able to finish his career, specializing in the field of pediatrics. During this career he already began to show interest in Freudian psychoanalysis .

In 1923 he married Alice Taylor, and went to work at the Paddington Green Children’s Hospital where he would work for about forty years. That same year he would begin to be analysed by James Strachey while his career as a paediatrician was being consolidated.

Start of contact with Melanie Klein

Once the analysis with Strachey was concluded and he was interested in continuing to understand and train himself in psychoanalysis and especially in its relationship with children, Winnicott would be recommended to contact Melanie Klein.

He began to train with the author, whom he would propose to analyze him as well. Klein refused and would in turn propose that Winnicott analyze his son Eric, under his supervision. The final result was that Eric’s analysis was accepted but without Klein’s supervision. This would initiate a somewhat convoluted relationship between Winnicott and Klein, who were torn between friendship and conflict. Winnicott also began to work with some patients.

Melanie Klein and Winnicott would diverge in several aspects , such as the need or not to include the parents in the analysis (while for Winnicott it was essential for Klein not due to the belief that the distress is due to the projection and introjection performed by the child and this has nothing to do with the real figure of the parent) or the importance of the provision of external stimulation.

In time, a confrontation would arise within the psychoanalytic school of the moment between the followers of Melanie Klein and those of Anna Freud, who had a different vision of psychoanalytic treatment, which, although it came from ancient times, resurfaced at this time in the Psychoanalytic Society of London. In this conflict Donald Woods Winnicott would not take a position for either of them, establishing himself as an independent with ideas that brought him closer to both positions.

World War II and Psychoanalytic Development

During the Second World War Winnicott studied the effects of separation from parents on children, also participating in programs of accommodation of minors in places of refuge in view of the risk of bombing. He would also be interested in the changes of the children when they return to their families.

Some time later, he separated from his wife in 1949. In 1951, he remarried Clare Britton, who would be tested by Klein after her previous therapist immigrated to Canada. They did not succeed in establishing a good relationship, the first considering that the second was a bad analyst and the second that Clare was too aggressive to be analyzed.

Donald Woods Winnicott also worked with psychotic patients . This author’s opposition to treatments such as electroshock to these and other types of patients is also well known.

During all this time her work evolved, incorporating different concepts based on Klein’s theory, Anna Freud’s more orthodox postulates and pediatric practice. His contribution was of great importance in the development of psychoanalysis.

Winnicott died in 1971 from a heart attack.

Contributions to Psychoanalysis

Throughout his career Winnicott would develop his own thinking of great relevance in the psychoanalytic field, based on diverse concepts coming from both the Kleinian influence and more orthodox positions within the psychoanalytic work.

His work focused on the dyadic mother-son relationship , considering the father as a support for the maintenance of the family nucleus. The mother is a fundamental figure in the psychological development of the child, being the emotional behavior of the mother the one that will determine if the baby can reach his true self by serving as an auxiliary ego.

Another aspect that I would take into account is the holding or holding behaviour of the mother towards the baby, which allows the baby to acquire security and to feel loved by allowing him to integrate the representation of himself and of others.

I would establish that throughout development the human being goes through different phases in which there is at first an absolute dependence of the baby towards the parents in which he is not able to contain the anguish, and from six months onwards he begins to be aware of the need of the parents and their care and to express his need, until finally he moves towards an ever greater independence.

A concept of great importance that Winnicott created is that of the transitional object as that which allows the child to establish an initiation of differentiation between the self and the not-self and which allows him to reduce anxiety in the absence of the mother by endowing them with narcissistic libido and object libido . Also important are transitional phenomena such as babbling, phenomena and actions that the child does with the same purpose and that allow progressive individuation and socialisation.

Bibliographic references:

  • Almendro, M.T.; Díaz, M. & Jiménez, G. (2012). Psychotherapies. Manual CEDE de Preparación PIR, 06.
  • Kahr, Brett (1999). Donald Woods Winnicott: Portrait and biography. Madrid: Editorial Biblioteca Nueva.