One of the most frequent comments in our house has lately been “Man undrar vad som händer i det där lilla huvudet” (“One wonders what is going on in that little head”) – along with such parental staples as “She is so cute” and “She’s a silly little thing”, of course. Because I really can’t help but wonder.

How well does she see? How far, how fast, how sharp? Can she see the cars driving by in the street when we’re out walking, or does that happen too fast?
Does she remember places? Does she recognise the house or the yard?
Does she recognise the play mat when she sees it from a distance, when I’m carrying her?
Does she remember sequences? Does she understand that sitting in the pushchair means that we’re going out, and that stomach medicine is followed by feeding? Would she understand that certain words precede certain events? Is she as teachable as a puppy? More? Less?
Does she recognize the toy that she last played with a month ago? Does she recognise the lullabies she hears at night?
Does she have intentions? Does she grab at a toy in order to put it in her mouth, or does she grab it because her hand happens to touch it, and only stuffs it in her mouth because that’s what one does with things held in the hand? Does all the kicking and leg-waving happen because she wants to move her legs, or do the legs move on their own? Does she splash in the bath water because she likes the sound or the sensation, or does it just happen?
Does she “talk” with intention? Does she cry because she has a problem, or because she wants us to fix the problem?
How does she know that pulling her facial muscles like this makes a smile? How does she know how to make the expression on her face kind of match the one on mine?
Why does rocking calm her?

The Internet was no help at all with this topic (except for one really interesting article about baby vision) so to slake my curiosity we have now bought a book (Lise Eliot’s aptly-titled What’s going on in there?) which will hopefully answer some of these questions. The author seems to have asked herself very similar questions, and being a neuroscientist, she set out to answer them. Looks very promising!

The first Estonian book I’ve read in a long time. I believe I’ve read this one before, but it must have been many years ago: some scenes were definitely familiar, but most of it felt new.

Jaan Kross is Estonia’s foremost contemporary writer, and probably the only one known outside Estonia. He writes historical fiction about different periods in Estonia’s history, ranging from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. He’s also pretty much the only Estonian writer I’ve read in the last 10 years or so.

Wikmani poisid (Wikman’s Boys) takes place at the Wikman Gymnasium (high school) in Tallinn in the late 1930s. The boys are studying, playing pranks on their teachers, and doing all the other things that almost-adult boys do, including some adolescent romance.

I found the book somewhat less interesting than the other novels by Kross that I’ve read. It felt somewhat more lightweight and had a less serious tone than the other ones. The antics of high school boys can be entertaining, but are ultimately not that interesting. And while the book shows glimpses of life in 1930s Estonia, those glimpses don’t reveal much, because we get to see very little of the boys’ life outside of school.

Only at the end does the story take a wider arc through life. The boys have a reunion five years after graduating. The year is 1942… and Estonia and the boys have lived through (or not) a lot of things.

The best part of the book was the very expressive language, especially the dialogue. Almost every one of the teachers has a very idiosyncratic voice – accented, or mannered, or pompous, or pious. So do many of the boys. Especially Penn’s comical blather (which includes impersonations of many of the teachers) is endlessly funny.

I need to read more Estonian literature. I found myself having to re-read some of the sentences in order to make sense of them. The everyday language of EPL is not quite enough to keep the language skills alive.

Here’s what we have learned about baby clothes over the last 4 months. Some of the tips may sound totally obvious, but I’ll include them anyway, for the sake of completeness.

  • Borrow as much of possible for your newborn. And the baby may outgrow the first items within a few weeks. Also, you can’t know what types of clothes you will find practical. Opinions do differ: some of the clothes my sister-in-law liked best, I found impractical and put away after one use. When we started buying clothes for our baby, after about 6 weeks or so, we were a lot better informed and prepared.

  • Skip the “newborn” size and go straight to “0–3 months”. The newborn-sized hat we got was too small for our girl on day 1, so she never got to use it. And the newborn-sized body was too small after 3 weeks. Unless your baby turns out to be really tiny, the 0–3s will fit well after just a week or two. And if you do get a tiny baby, you can always buy some newborn clothes when the baby has arrived, and keep the 0–3s for later.

  • Don’t buy too much. Assuming your baby can wear the 0–3s for 3 months, and you have 7 sets of clothes, each set will only get worn 13 times. Buy 10 sets, and the baby will outgrow them before s/he’s even worn them 10 times. The same will happen if the baby outgrows the clothes in less than 3 months, which is what happened us. Around 6 sets of indoor clothing worked well for us: this means we wash baby clothes every 4–5 days, because occasionally she goes through more than one set per day because of various “accidents”.

    Because babies don’t sweat much (unless they are wearing too much), baby clothes don’t get dirty unless they are exposed to said accidents, directly or indirectly. Socks, for example, can be worn for 2–3 days before changing, so we get by with 3 pairs. Outerwear hardly gets dirty at all, as long as the baby is pram-bound: one set is enough. When you do need to wash these, they usually dry overnight.

  • Make sure the clothes are easy to wash. That also applies to any other fabric items that come in contact with the baby: play mats, bouncy seat covers, blankets etc. Everything will inevitably get pooped and burped on, and I really wouldn’t want to scrub poop off the chair cover with a sponge. If it can’t be washed – for example, if you have the baby sitting in the corner of your sofa – cover it with a muslin.

  • Choose things that are easy to change, and allow easy nappy changes. This is less important for outerwear, and ultra important for night clothes. When you’re changing a nappy in the middle of the night, you do NOT want to spend time on fiddly clothes. Skip anything that has buttons; go for poppers instead.

    For this reason we abandoned sleepsuits (all-in-ones with long sleeves and legs): the long rows of poppers along the legs were too much work in the dark in the middle of the night. Almost inevitably I would miss one in the middle, and run out of buttons before buttonholes, or the other way round. Instead, Ingrid only wears bodies. She gets a new clean body every evening after her bath, sleeps in it at night, and has it throughout the next day as well.

  • Go for soft and stretchy clothes: stretchy fabrics and elasticated waists, and no scratchy decorations. Non-stretchy clothes will either not fit, or be uncomfortable when the baby has just eaten. Most baby clothes are in stretchy cotton jersey, other knitted materials or fleece nowadays. But I have seen jeans with a buttoned waist, sized for 3-month-olds…

  • We found cotton bodies / vests / onesies to be the all-round most practical clothes. Ingrid hardly ever wears anything else at home (except for socks). If you have a reasonably warm house, a long-sleeved body may be enough to keep the baby warm. In a colder house, add trousers. The trousers + t-shirt combination inevitably leaves a gap at the waist (the t-shirt will NOT stay tucked in, as long as the baby is crawling around on the floor) so you’ll almost certainly need a vest underneath, anyway, to keep the little tummy warm. Keep trousers and tops for special occasions. Skirts and dresses are even less practical: they will just get bunched up when the baby moves, and won’t cover anything.

  • Consider wrap bodies instead of pull-on-over-the-head bodies. Some babies object strongly to having their face covered, so pulling clothes over their heads can be a struggle. Even if the baby doesn’t mind, I’ve found wrap bodies easier to put on: they don’t get so tangled up, somehow.

If you’re buying baby clothes as a gift, I’d add one more point to the above:

  • Buy 3–6-month clothes, unless you will hand over the gift as soon as the baby is born, or before. If you buy 0–3 clothes and visit the baby when s/he is a month old, and the baby happens to be a large one, s/he will outgrow your gift before she’s had a chance to use it much.

Here’s a more general baby needs list.

Ingrid, meet the carrots.
Carrots, meet Ingrid.

Ingrid’s enjoyment of the encounter surpassed all our expectations. The carrots could not be reached for comment.

She had no objections to us stuffing food in her mouth, and seemed to quite like the taste. Of course very little of the food was swallowed – most was sort of smeared around the mouth and face. Nevertheless, the first steps were most encouraging.

A friend of mine is expecting his first baby soon, so I thought I’d offer my advice on what to buy and not to buy for the baby.

Here, then, is a list of all the things that we considered buying (based on various sources), and what we thought about them.

Buying for your baby.xls

I’ve sorted everything into 3 groups: ESSENTIAL, YES, and NO, based on how useful we found them.

  • ESSENTIAL are the things that we couldn’t have done without. The essentials include such basics as clothes, pram, sling, cot.
  • YES marks things that were useful but that could probably be replaced with something else, or you could manage without. This includes a changing bag, bath thermometer etc.
  • NO marks things that we bought or got, but didn’t end up using much at all. For us, this included scratch mittens and a breast pump.
  • There are also some items marked “Didn’t have one” or “Haven’t bought yet”; those are things that have been recommended somewhere but that we haven’t actually tried out, so I don’t have much to say about them.

I’ve also commented briefly on most items. The comments are of course my personal view only. If your habits or preferences differ from mine, or your baby has different needs, you may not agree at all.

Finally, I’ve guessed at roughly when you might want to buy these things. The things I suggest buying at 0 months are the ones you should probably sort out before the baby is born (and with a few weeks to spare). The ones marked “0-1 months” are those that you can live without in the first few weeks, and may want to buy a bit later, when you know more about your baby’s habits and preferences. But you could also buy these in advance.

Our best buys:

  • Pushchair. Don’t skimp; buy a good one. You are likely to use it many hours every week, so get one that you find comfortable and convenient to use. BabyCentre has good tips to help you choose a pram or pushchair. The right choice depends on your lifestyle: I’m very happy with our Stokke, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re going to be packing your pushchair into a car on a regular basis, or spending a lot of time on the Tube.
  • Moses basket. You can buy a cot straight away, but we found a Moses basket very handy to begin with. It’s light and small, so you can carry the baby with you from room to room. It also allows you to have the baby sleeping next to your bed, where a cot might not fit.
  • Sling. I love my slings. Many books and web sites recommend a Baby Bjorn-type baby carrier, but a sling is much more versatile and comfortable, for both you and the baby. Some men have been known to describe slings as somewhat “unmanly”, but if you buy one in black or denim, you can probably convince them otherwise! The Baby Wearer has a lot of advice on choosing a baby carrier.
  • Activity mat / play gym. Ingrid spends most of her day on the play mat. It protects the carpet from the baby, and lets the baby have fun looking at interesting things from a very early age. Get one with lots of loops and removable toys, so you can switch to new ones and keep the it interesting.
  • Bath seat. Cheap, easy to use, less faff than a baby bath, and takes up less space.
  • A good nursing pillow. A tiny baby is floppy and needs good support, and mum’s arms and back can get very tired without a pillow.

Baby clothes are a whole separate topic and deserve a post of their own, which I will hopefully be able to post later today or tomorrow.

Update: here is the post about baby clothes.

We tried a new position for Ingrid in the sling yesterday. She sits in a sort of lotus position, with her legs crossed and knees drawn up. She seemed to like it.

It looks as if I’ve grown a second head, doesn’t it?

I read an engrossing (and somewhat gross) article about tapeworms the other day, and it was better written and more interesting than some of the fiction works I’ve read recently. Chock-full of bizarre and baffling facts about the evolution and physiology of tapeworms, flatworms and other related creatures.

Did you know that humans are host to 54 species of tapeworm, and they can get up to 18 metres long?

And how about this:

Here’s a digression but a good one: some monogeneans give birth to offspring without releasing them from their bodies. Their offspring mature inside them and give birth as well. Like a hideous Russian doll, a monogenean may contain twenty generations of descendents inside its body! [“Kids, it’s time you found a place of your own…”]

Studying these worms is probably a very interesting job, but it doesn’t make for good conversation fodder. Imagine yourself at a dinner party, and someone asking what you work with… On the other hand, it could well be a hit topic with teenagers!

Every time I go out with Ingrid in the sling, I am surprised by how much heat she generates. She’s like a little nuclear reactor. In the beginning I always put on far too many clothes – just whatever I’d wear without her – and ended up shedding almost everything. In fact once late November I walked around in a short-sleeved t-shirt, plus Ingrid in the sling, and I was still sweaty. But that was a fast walk because I was in a hurry.

Now that I’ve learned my lesson, I normally just take a thin rain- and windproof jacket to keep my back and my arms out of the wind. Ingrid herself is in her indoors clothes. If she’s awake and her head is outside the sling, then she gets a little hat as well. That’s it! And it’s quite enough to keep both of us toasty, even when the temperature is below +10°C.

Going out with the sling therefore takes very little preparation. It works great, for example, if I need to go out while she is napping: she doesn’t notice anything at all. The hardest part is putting on and lacing up my boots: with her in the sling, it’s a bit hard to reach my feet. Just like when I was pregnant, in fact.

This is Miéville’s first short story collection. I’ve read all his novels: both King Rat which takes place in London, and the three Bas-Lag books. The stories in this book were closer to King Rat in style, except the last story (“The Tain”) which, even though it is set in London, reminded me of the gothic-spooky feeling of the Bas-Lag books.

Most of the stories turned out to be quite simple horror stories, which was a real disappointment to me. They’re not bad, as such, but neither are they anything special. I had expected the wild flights of fantasy, the strange worlds and strange ideas he has shown himself capable of. I thought King Rat was a first work, and that he’d left that style behind because he’d learned to write more interesting stuff. Apparently not.

And when I say “simple horror stories”, I really mean “simple”. Several of them were so predictable that the idea, the horrible thing, was obvious already after a few pages. (“Different Skies”: Man buys an antique stained-glass window. It starts scaring him. So of course it is a window onto a different time or world.) Some seemed to be written with the aim of being unpleasant, and nothing else. (“Familiar”: Witch makes a familiar out of scraps of his own flesh. The familiar scares and disgusts him, he throws it out, and it starts growing.)

About halfway through I gave up and started skimming through the stories, just to make sure that I didn’t miss any hidden gem among them. And it’s a good thing I didn’t put down the book before the end, because the one story that I read with real interest was the last and longest one, a novella titled “The Tain” that has also been published separately. Here, the mirrors of the world have opened and let through the things that were on the other side – the things we thought were our mirror images turn out to have lives of their own, and they really didn’t like being our slaves.

I get the impression that Miéville simply needs space in order to properly develop an idea, to really let loose his talent. The short story as a literary form is too short for this: he ends up reporting the idea, and nothing else.

Lots of reviews on the web disagree, and find the stories here diverse, deep, unsettling, and mysterious.

Amazon UK, Amazon US.

Today is Shrove Tuesday / Pancake day / fettisdagen / vastlad. In both Sweden and Estonia there is a tradition of eating semlor / vastlakukleid on this day. (If you have never heard of these, The Local helpfully provides The lowdown on Sweden’s best buns.)

While I have long been doing most of the cooking in our house, Eric is the master baker. My theory is that cooking is too nitty-gritty and pedestrian for him. But give him a proper big project – gingerbread cookies, semlor, even pancakes or lasagne – and he’s hooked.

So this year, and indeed almost all of our years here in London, Eric baked semlor. I don’t think he ever did it in Sweden where quality semlor can be bought in every bakery for months, but here it brings back a bit of home.

There are some differences between the Estonian and the Swedish traditions. Swedish semlor are filled with almond paste and whipped cream. As far as I can remember, an Estonian vastlakukkel only had whipped cream as filling – possibly because it was almost impossible to get one’s hands on almonds or almond paste back when I was a child. Or maybe it has always been that way.

Also, some Swedes drown their semlor in hot milk. I’ve always found this habit most bizarre – I prefer my milk on the side, in a glass – but to each his own.

Semla, my way Semla, Eric’s way