Review: Winnicott on Primary Maternal Preoccupation

The article reviewed here is ‘Primary Maternal Preoccupation’ by Donald Winnicott. In this short article Winnicott limits himself to developing ‘the theme of the very early infant-mother relationship’ in response to an article written by Anna Freud in 1954 (‘Problems of Infantile Neurosis: A Discussion’). In that article, Freud opposed the idea that maternal interactions with the infant during the oral phase could determine infantile neurosis and suggested other causes needed to be identified which Winnicott supports here. He then discusses the equivalence of the terms ‘homeostatic equilibrium’ and ‘symbiotic relationship’ when applied to the mother-infant relationship.  He then talks about how id experiences can positively benefit the development of the self. He paraphrases Freud and cautions here against use of the terms ‘satisfaction’ and ‘frustration’ as applied to needs which he dichotomises as either being met or not met. Essentially in the remainder of the article, Winnicott describes a model of infant development in relation to the mother. He suggests that the mother’s psychological state shortly after birth becomes adapted to provide the infant’s psychological needs. This consists of initial interactions which the infant reciprocates. As the infant develops, there are breaks in this reciprocal interaction which lead the infant to fear ‘annihilation’ (which Winnicott says is different from an adult’s conceptualisation of the same in that it is a prevention of the infant ‘going on being’). Each episode in which this fear arises and there is recovery, strengthens and develops the infant’s ego. Instead if the reciprocation that the infant is expecting is not met in the earliest stages of development the infant may create a false self and id experiences may then interfere with the ego’s development.

This is one of Winnicott’s later works and in my opinion is quite different from some of the earlier works reviewed. He cites a number of works throughout his discussion as would be expected from the experience he has accrued in the interim. His ideas are also more densely contained within this work and there is an overarching model which brings everything together. However as with the previous works reviewed here, he is speculating and it is made clear in his writing that this is a theory. His ideas touch on a number of modern themes – the subtleties of empathy and post-partum developments and it is possible to see how such changes can be tested and the model further refined – as it is relatively simple in the stated form. Indeed further refinement would allow for a neurobiological interpretation of some of Winnicott’s concepts which when combined with psychotherapeutic knowledge would provide a richer environment for his model to be developed in (perhaps the psychotherapeutic model could benefit from the containing environment of  neurobiology or vice versa!). This is another of Winnicott’s thought provoking works on early infantile development.


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The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


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