Donald Winnicott (1896-1971)

Donald Winnicott

Donald Woods Winnicott was a 20th century pediatrician and psychoanalyst who studied child development. 

Professional Life

Donald Woods Winnicott was born on April 7, 1896 in Plymouth, England. His father was a prosperous merchant, and his mother suffered from depression during Winnicott’s youth. Winnicott was the youngest child, and his recollections of his childhood are filled with memories of trying to lift the darkness in his home. This early experience with mental health problems led Winnicott toward helping other people troubled with psychological problems.

Winnicott began studying medicine at Jesus College in Cambridge in 1914, and he joined the Royal Navy in 1917. He completed his medical degree at the University of London’s St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College. In 1923, Winnicott began working as a pediatrician at the Paddington Green Children’s Hospital, where he remained until 1962.

Winnicott developed an interest in psychoanalysis, and he studied under Melanie Klein, a highly influential psychoanalyst who refuted many of Freud's theories on child development. Winnicott became a child analyst in 1935 and a full member of the British Psychoanalytic Society in 1936. Over time, Winnicott distanced himself from Klein's work, and he developed his own theories on child development.

Winnicott’s first marriage to Alice Taylor ended in 1951, and he subsequently married Clare Britton, a social worker with whom he had begun working in 1941. The couple continued to collaborate professionally while they were married, and Clare published much of Winnicott’s work after he died in 1971.

Contribution to Psychology

Winnicott developed several theories and concepts that helped shape the way in which psychoanalysis is practiced today. Winnicott and his wife used the term “holding” to refer to the supportive environment that a therapist creates for a client. The concept can be likened to the nurturing and caring behavior a mother engages in with her child that results in a sense of trust and safety. Winnicott believed that this “holding environment” was critical to the therapeutic environment and could be created through the therapist’s direct engagement with a client. Winnicott also believed that antisocial behaviors developed from a person’s having been deprived of a holding environment in childhood and from feelings of insecurity.

Winnicott also developed the concept of the transitional object. Transitional objects include items like security blankets, special dolls or toys, and other sentimental items. A transitional object can help a child feel safe and secure, for example, while gaining independence. Transitional objects typically spring up during childhood as children begin the process of individuation, or differentiation of self from others, but they can also help older children, and even adults, who are facing a transition of some kind.

Winnicott's conception of the true and false selves are connected to his views on play. He believed that the false self was a mannerly, orderly, external self that enabled a person to fit into society. The true self, however, is the only self capable of creativity, and play helps a person develop this true self. He thought that play was an important path by which clients could gain awareness into their authentic emotional selves. He encouraged play through creative outlets, such as art, sports,or movement. Winnicott believed the therapist could help a client reveal the uninhibited child within and rediscover a true sense of being.

Selected Works by Donald Winnicott

  • Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (1965)
  • The Child, the Family, and the Outside World (1965)
  • Playing and Reality (1971
  • Home Is Where We Start From: Essays by a Psychoanalyst (1986)


  1. Hartmann, L. (2003). Winnicott: Life and Work. American Journal of Psychiatry, 160(12), 2255-2256. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.160.12.2255
  2. Johns, Jennifer. (2005). Donald Winnicott. International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. Retrieved from
  3. Kanter, J. (2000). The Untold Story of Clare and Donald Winnicott: How Social Work Influenced Modern Psychoanalysis. Clinical Social Work Journal, 28(3), 245-261. Retrieved from

Last Update: 07-13-2015

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