Choosing a name for your baby can feel like a high-stakes process. After all, you’re just forming an indelible part of his or her identity, so no pressure or anything.
From sound and spelling to family significance and popularity, there are many factors to consider when it comes to baby names. We spoke to baby name experts to find out what considerations they like to bring up with expectant parents.
“A name is one of the first gifts parents give a child, so I recommend they select it the way one would select any gift ― for the enjoyment and good use of the recipient,” said Sherri Suzanne, a baby name consultant and the founder of My Name for Life.
Whatever parents want to choose is up to them, but it doesn’t hurt to let some ideas marinate. Here are some guidelines and questions worth considering when selecting a baby name.
1. What’s my style?
The first thing expectant parents will want to figure out is if they gravitate toward names that are unusual and interesting or classic and popular.
“I ask my clients to begin by observing name styles even before they need to choose ― listen in stores, restaurants and parks as parents call to their children,” Suzanne said. “I ask parents to pay attention to their own visceral reaction to name styles and ask, ‘Am I drawn to contemporary names like Beckett and Harper? Do I feel more comfortable with familiar classics like Elizabeth or William?’”
Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran of Nameberry said parents should ask themselves if they want a name that has won universal approval or one that is more unusual. “Ask, ‘Have I considered the disadvantages of both ― having a name that might be shared with several classmates, or one that is difficult to recognize, spell and pronounce?’” the Nameberry founders wrote in an email. “The sweet spot is familiar but not epidemic, distinctive but not outlandish.”
2. Just how popular is this name I like?
Parents can find out just how trendy a name is by checking the Social Security Administration website, which tracks the popularity of baby names going back to the 1880s. You can even see the top 100 names in every state and how many babies were given each name in recent years.
When analyzing name popularity, it’s also important to ask yourself, “Is uniqueness important to me? And why?”
“A name is one of the first gifts parents give a child, so I recommend they select it the way one would select any gift ― for the enjoyment and good use of the recipient.”
– Sherri Suzanne, founder, My Name for Life
“Parents today put a huge amount of pressure on themselves to find a unique and distinctive name. Cut yourself some slack and remember that ‘popular’ just means ‘well liked,’” said Laura Wattenberg, the founder of the Baby Name Wizard. “Ruling out every name on the popularity chart is like going to a restaurant and asking the waiter to bring you the dishes nobody ever orders. Chances are, there’s a reason nobody makes those choices. At the least, super-rare names tend to be divisive, like licorice or anchovies.”
She emphasized that the world is full of successful people with incredibly common names. Americans tend to be more creative with their name choices these days, so no popular baby name today is quite as common as a favored name was decades ago.
3. Do I like saying this name?
If you’ve ever seen parents out in public with their children, odds are you’ve heard a child’s name said over and over again. Ask yourself how the name you’re considering sounds when you say it repeatedly in all sorts of tones ― in a disciplinarian way, in a summoning way and so forth.
“Fashion trends, family traditions and meaning are all good criteria for choosing a name. But parents shouldn’t forget to pick a name they love and enjoy saying,” said Suzanne. “After all, they’ll be saying their child’s name a lot.”
4. Does the name carry strong associations that are difficult to shed?
“In an effort to make a child stand out, sometimes we make it harder for them to fit in,” Suzanne noted. Choosing a name that has a strong association ― positive or negative ― with a famous figure can hinder your child’s ability to make a name for herself or himself.
“Imagine this introduction — `Hi, I’m Abraham Lincoln. Yes, my parents were history buffs’ — every day of your life,” she said, adding that parents should do a simple Google search before committing to a name so that they can avoid ones that carry baggage. But don’t get too carried away, as there are famous people with practically every name.
“With the proliferation of pop culture through the internet and Instagram these days, it’s in our face,” said Jennifer Moss, the founder and CEO of BabyNames.com. “There are names like Oprah or Khloe that have a very specific association.”
With that in mind, you should focus on the public association with a name and make sure it doesn’t have a negative connotation. There’s also the matter of personal associations. “Sometimes you’ll think, `No that was the name of my ex-boyfriend, so I don’t want to use that,’” Moss added.
5. Are there goals or guidelines I should keep in mind when naming my child?
It can be useful to stay within a few parameters when it comes time to pick a baby’s name. Some parents want to observe religious traditions, honor a family member or pay tribute to their cultural heritage.
“Sometimes what feel like limitations are helpful when sorting through the vast number of names available to parents,” said Suzanne.
Moss said the popularity of ancestry databases and DNA analysis means people have access to lots of family records and therefore new-old name ideas. “I really believe that’s partly why those old-fashioned names or granny names are trending again,” she said, noting that old family last names can offer the opportunity to honor a whole branch of a family tree.
6. Is it too diminutive?
“You’re not just naming a baby. You’re also naming an adult. So think about how the name would grow with the child throughout their life,” Moss said, adding that names like Pixie or Birdie, which seem cute for a toddler, may not be helpful for a grown woman who wants to command the boardroom.
“You’re not just naming a baby. You’re also naming an adult. So think about how the name would grow with the child throughout their life.”
– Jennifer Moss, founder and CEO, BabyNames.com
“Consider using those sorts of names as nicknames but also give them a formal name that can grow with the child,” she said.
Wattenberg suggested asking yourself, “Who am I picturing when I imagine this name in action?”
“Naming a baby is an exercise in hypotheticals and imagination. After all, we’re naming someone we’ve never met. But our imaginations sometimes lead us astray. Are you imagining a baby or picturing the name at all stages of life? Are you imagining your child being a lot like you or embodying your dreams?” she said.
“Remember that kids will take their own paths, and be sure that the name suits a geek as well as a jock, an engineer as well as an artist,” she continued. “Or perhaps, are you actually picturing yourself sending out birth announcements and impressing your friends with your name choice?”
7. Do my partner and I agree?
It’s common for expectant parents to have disagreements about their baby’s name. They both bring their good and bad name experiences into the process and may have family names or traditions that are difficult for the other to embrace.
In some cases, the easy answer is to let one parent have the final say on the name choice while the other is in charge of a different decision, said Suzanne.
“For more difficult disagreements, I recommend parents start by asking whether the disagreement is stylistic or emotional,” she said. “If the disagreement is about name style ― let’s say one parent favors a traditional name while the other fears being ordinary ― I might suggest a rarely used classic name that feels familiar yet is unlikely to be duplicated in any classroom.”
If the disagreement is more emotional (like choosing whose late grandparent to honor), Suzanne suggested choosing a neutral first name and a compound middle name to pay tribute to both.
8. Will my child introduce himself or herself with confidence?
“Names that are deliberately provocative or form jokes, rhymes, puns or phrases with a surname can turn a simple introduction into a dreaded event,” Suzanne said. “Avoid names that become lifelong punchlines by lifting name candidates off the page and testing them in real-world scenarios. Listen for hidden chuckles that are not evident in print — `Hi, I’m Rowan Cohen’ or `I’d like you to meet Carly Marleigh’ or ‘This is Wolf Hunter.’”
She also advised against inventing obscure and convoluted spellings just for the sake of being different. Instead, parents may want to consider if the name is user-friendly.
Moss recommended looking at the name from the perspective of the child. “What you love and think is cute might not necessarily be workable for them,” she said.
9. What is the name’s meaning?
The meaning of a name can have two senses ― the literal definition and the personal significance related to family history or something else.
While the literal sense can be important, the Nameberry founders advise against getting too invested in that aspect. “We don’t think you should be overly concerned with if a name means ‘bold warrior’ in ancient German when it’s clunky in the U.S. today,” Rosenkrantz and Satran said.
“It just takes a moment to ensure that initials do not create an unpleasant word — like ASS — that may someday appear as a user name.”
10. Have I checked for hidden pitfalls of the digital age?
Millennial parents have been open about choosing baby names based on domain name availability and securing their children’s social media handles and email addresses at birth.
While you don’t have to go that far, Suzanne said it’s still important to consider the digital age in your choice. “The common email naming convention of first initial plus last name can yield some unintended embarrassing results. Cadence Ruddy becomes firstname.lastname@example.org, and Max Oron becomes email@example.com,” she explained.
“It just takes a moment to ensure that initials do not create an unpleasant word ― like ASS ― that may someday appear as a user name,” she added. “Note that not every word that’s formed is a dealbreaker, but part of examining a name nowadays is knowing how it may appear in contemporary uses.”
11. Am I leading with joy?
Wattenberg advised taking a joy-focused approach to choosing a name ― and continuing to love the name you choose.
“Rather than narrowing down your options by finding every possible fault, narrow up by focusing on what you love about each name,” she said. “Focus on the joy, and you’re less likely to second-guess yourself. Better yet, you’ll have a ready answer when your child asks why you chose her name.”