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Winnicott's development stages


Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Articles > Winnicott's development stages

Description | Discussion | See also



There are three stages in infant development as described by Winnicott.

Undifferentiated unity

In the first stage, the child needs an illusion of being connected with, and not separated from, the mother.

When things are going well, they feel omnipotent and in complete control of the mother, which it gets when the mother responds to its needs.


The disconnection and removal of the 'connection' illusion, if done suddenly, can be a traumatic shock for the child, and so needs to occur as gently as possible.

'Disillusionment' includes the realization that others sometimes take precedence and their feelings must be considered. Done well, this leads to a strengthening of the ego, rather than damaging.

Early in this stage, the child realizes its dependence and learns about loss. By moving away from the child in well-timed small doses, the good-enough mother helps develop a healthy sense of independence.

A role of the mother here is to allow the child to project bad objects (fears, frustrations)  into her and then re-introject them when they can see how well she handles them.

If the mother only returns her own defenses then the baby will not learn to trust her and will reject, withdraw or just become adaptive to this feared or disliked other.

A key tool for the child during this period of transition towards independence is the transition object, that it substitutes for the mother, uses to develop its sense of self and allows itself to let go of the early need for omnipotence.

Relative independence

If the transition is effective, then the child will develop a healthy false self that they can present to the world and with which they are comfortable. Otherwise, the child remains uncomfortable with itself.

Total independence is seldom fully achieved as we always have some dependence on the presence of others.


The job of the good-enough mother is to guide the child through these stages, providing early connection and gradual release.

Winnicott's stages are similar to Lacan's three stages of the neonatal phase, the mirror phase and the symbolic register. A major difference is that Winnicott uses a softer, more gentle approach.

The need for the company of others (and the lack of full independence) is evidenced in the use of solitary confinement as a punishment.

See also

Object Relations Theory, Lacan, Learning stage theories, The Chora


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