What Is “Good Enough Mothering” of a Baby?

Insight into what good enough infant nurturing looks like.

Posted Sep 06, 2020

Taking a research physician’s viewpoint, Dr. Margaret Ribble (in the previous post) found that infant needs are best met by "mother love." Dr. D. W. Winnicott gives us the therapist's viewpoint in discussing “good enough mothering.”

Both Ribble and Winnicott emphasize breastfeeding and how it shapes the child’s physiology and psychology but also emphasize that it is not breastfeeding per se but the accompanying mothering. Winnicott (1987) points out that when the breast “does not work,” the mother cannot “decide” to make it work—it’s outside the mother’s conscious control. “The mother is unable to feed by the breast by deliberate effort. She has to wait for her own reactions…” (p. 27). And so he discusses “good enough” mothering as the entire “holding” environment for the child, especially important in early infancy.

What is a "good enough" mother?

Winnicott describes good enough mothering as the holding environment that reassures the infant during the early life period of rapid psychological growth and expands over childhood to include the community.

Winnicott tells us that a baby’s innate tendencies propel his growth but that they need a facilitating environment, especially at the beginning of life when dependence on caregivers is virtually absolute.

“A facilitating environment must have a human quality, not a mechanical perfection, so the phrase ‘good-enough mother’ seems to me to meet the need for a description of what the child needs of the inherited growth processes are to become actual in the development of the individual child. In the beginning the whole of the development takes place because of the tremendously vital, inherited tendencies towards development—towards integration, towards growth, the thing that one day makes the child want to walk, and so on. If there is a good-enough environmental provision, these things take place in that child. But if the facilitating environment is not good enough, then the line of life is broken and the very powerful inherited tendencies cannot carry the child on to personal fulfillment.” (Winnicott, 1990, p. 119)

Good enough means that mothers start off with

a high degree of adaptation to the baby’s needs…[a] tremendous capacity that mothers ordinarily have to give themselves over to identification with the baby. Towards the end of a pregnancy and at the beginning of a child’s life, they are so identified with the baby that they really practically know what the baby is feeling like, and so they can adapt themselves to the needs of the baby in such a way that the baby’s needs are met.” (1990, pp. 144-145)

The baby is then able to continue growing along the innate developmental course “which is the beginning of health. The mother is laying down the basis for the mental health of the baby, and more than health—fulfillment and richness, with all the dangers and conflicts that these bring, with all the awkwardnesses that belong to growth and development.” (1990, pp. 144-145)

What are the benefits of good enough mothering?

“The basis of personality is being laid down well if the baby is held well enough. Babies do not remember being held well—what they remember is the traumatic experience of not being held well enough.” (1987, p. 62). This is not an explicit memory but an implicit one of not being safe, not feeling appreciated, confident or trusting.

The result of a well-held infant is a contented, mostly quiet infant. The caregiver has learned to recognize the signals of need in the infant—restlessness and grimaces—and to move in quickly to alleviate distress. The baby learns from the mother’s regulation of him to regulate himself. Baby’s body systems learn not to go for the extreme to signal needs, developing a calmer personality.

How does one learn to be a good enough mother?

Winnicott warns professionals that they cannot teach the mother to mother. In his conversations with and observations of mothers who have been instructed by medical personnel, he says: “Quite frequently [mothers] found that what they knew in this way interfered so much at the beginning that they were not able to be natural with their own first child. Gradually, they managed to shed this useless layer of knowledge that is intertwined with words and settle down to involvement with this one baby. (1987, pp. 61-62)

Instead, a mother knows things subtly and intuitively. “She has to know about it from a deeper level and not necessarily from that part of the mind which has words for everything. The main things that a mother does with the baby cannot be done through words. This is very obvious but it is also a very easy thing to forget.” (1987, p. 61) She can only arrive at the deeper knowhow by being left alone with the infant (initially to bond and get acquainted).

What helps the baby develop a sense of predictability is “the mother’s adaptation to the baby’s needs,” something difficult to describe in words but “in fact adaptation to a baby’s needs can only be done well, or well enough, by a mother who has temporarily given herself over to the care of her baby’ (1987, p. 84). Book reading will not work nor will deliberate effort. Adaptation to the baby’s needs is attached to “the special state that most mothers find themselves in at the end of their nine-months’ term, a state in which they are quite naturally orientated to this central thing, the baby, and they know what the baby is feeling.” (1987, p. 84)

Mothers, by and large, have the instincts to be good enough mothers. The processes of pregnancy and birth and postnatal life need vast support but also noninterference of natural rhythms, including initial breastfeeding and bonding, by professionals or culture. There is the beginning of mental health.

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Ribble, Margaret (1943). The rights of infants. NY: Columbia University Press.

Winnicott, D.W. (1987). Babies and their mothers. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Winnicott, D.W. (1990). Home is where we start from: Essays by a psychoanalyst (compiled and Ed. By  C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, M. Davis). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.